A funeral is one of the oldest social rituals in Irish society. The Irish turn toward celebration instead of deep sadness — believe it or not, they greet death with humor and a toast.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Irish Wakes and Pre-Funeral Traditions
- What Happens During an Irish Funeral
- Irish Funeral Etiquette
- What Happens After an Irish Funeral?
- Irish Funerals: What to Keep in Mind
The Irish wake is one of the most common funeral traditions. The wake is usually held in the home of the deceased, and relatives traditionally gather. Mourning does occur, but joy and uplifting memories prevail. The Irish believe celebrating a loved one's death guarantees a good sendoff.
COVID-19 tip: If you chose to use a virtual Irish funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still recite prayers, interact, and listen to traditional Irish music with your online guests. Speak with your planning team, ensure you have the right mics and speakers, and make sure to rehearse the ceremony.
Irish Wakes and Pre-Funeral Traditions
A window is automatically opened in the home of the deceased to release the spirit of the individual who has passed on. Relatives of the deceased leave a clear path to the window to ensure the soul is set free.
A customary wake in often held in the home of the deceased or at a close relative’s home, though modern Irish families may also choose to have the wake at a funeral home.
Many Irish refer to this as being “laid out.” Family members take turns watching the deceased in the home. During the wake, relatives stop the clocks in the home at the time of death and mirrors are turned to face the wall as a sign of respect.
Wherever the wake takes place, family and friends share a full meal, tea or whiskey. The wake becomes a party for the deceased and this carries on for several hours.
What Happens During an Irish Funeral
Most people in Ireland are Catholic and this plays a large role in their funeral traditions, you'll see several elements of a Catholic funeral.
Once the wake ends, the next stop for an Irish funeral is the local Catholic church. It’s common for Irish funerals to take place in a church, regardless of the deceased’s actual religion.
You can expect to see family, neighbors, and friends at an Irish funeral. It’s customary in Irish culture to attend a funeral if you knew the deceased in any way.
Family and friends take part by carrying the casket in and out of the church. The Catholic mass of burial is led by a priest and the family often conducts the readings.
Agenda and tradition
A full Catholic mass takes place at a funeral. During the mass, readings and the sacrament of communion take place. The priest gives a eulogy and then blesses the deceased and his or her family.
Family members will often conduct readings from the Bible when asked by the priest.
Display of the body and casket
The casket is closed prior to the funeral, though the family may view the deceased one last time before the coffin is carried into the church.
During and after the funeral, the casket will remain closed. A funeral pall with an embroidered religious symbol is then placed over the casket.
Typical prayers and hymns
Prayers, hymns, and old Irish tunes are often played at the funeral service. You may hear one or more of the following songs during a traditional Irish funeral:
- “Danny Boy” is one of the most popular Irish farewell songs.
- “Irish Blessing” is often sung during the mass. The lyrics go hand-in-hand with the readings during the Catholic mass: "May the road rise to meet you, and the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm on your face and the rains fall softly on your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you gently in the palm of his hand.”
- “The Parting Glass” is an old Irish favorite with these famous lyrics: "So fill to me the parting glass, God bless, and joy be with you all."
- “Nearer, My God, to Thee” is a 19th-century Christian prayer.
You’ll also likely hear traditional readings from the Catholic Bible's New and Old Testament. Two common Irish funeral verses are:
Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. John 11: 25, 26
I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Romans 8: 38,39
An Irish Catholic funeral is about 45 minutes long.
Irish Funeral Etiquette
The etiquette at an Irish funeral is traditional yet laid back. The Irish approach death with honor, respect, and a smile.
Irish funeral attire is the same as what you’d wear to an American funeral. Suit jackets and ties are customary for men and dresses or skirts are common for women. Irish men might also wear hats.
The mood at an Irish funeral is a bit more somber than the wake. At a traditional Irish funeral, keening may occur.
A keener takes on the role of the person who laments and is vocal about his or her grief. Keening can take place at the wake, funeral, and burial site.
Though it’s not required, it’s a nice gesture to bring a sympathy card or gift. This might include flowers, a religious trinket, or a card.
What Happens After an Irish Funeral?
At the end of an Irish funeral, family and friends will pay their respect to the deceased's family. Attendees might stop to say a prayer over the lowered casket. This a time of quiet reflection before the post-funeral party takes place.
Traditions for cremation and burial
The deceased is often carried or driven to the cemetery. In some nontraditional cases, the deceased is cremated. In this case, the family will say its final goodbye at the church.
A funeral procession will take place if the deceased is buried. The priest will share a few words at the gravesite and then the family will say their final parting words. The common Irish soil (clay) will cover the casket once the graveside service concludes.
Mourning the dead
Family and friends will gather at a relative’s home or a pub to share food and a pint. The celebration of life continues with jokes and happy memories of the deceased.
A pipe is passed around and those who take a puff are invited to share a bit of wit or wisdom. This tradition is thought to assist the passing of the deceased on his or her heavenly journey.
A “month’s mind” might occur 30 days after the death. This is a formal mass that occurs in honor of the deceased. Family and friends gather to honor the deceased and keep their memory alive. A yearly mass will also take place.
Irish Funerals: What to Keep in Mind
Irish funerals may appear to be traditional, but they are also filled with a lot of laughter. The Irish believe death is a passage into heaven and they honor the process with reverence.
Pay attention to the details if you attend an Irish funeral. Families put a lot of love and deep thought into these rituals. Some rituals have been passed down for hundreds of years, while others are unique to the family.
Keep these guidelines in mind and be ready for a moving experience. You might find why the Irish are always depicted with a smile.
- Irish Blessing, Ireland’s Hidden Gem, http://www.irelands-hidden-gems.com/irish-blessing.html
- The Funeral Service Guide, Church of Ireland, https://www.ireland.anglican.org