The Wake and Vigil for the Deceased
The origin of the traditional Irish wake lies in the strength of the Irish family and community. As the Irish bid farewell to loved ones, the scene is one of jollity mixed with sorrow. It is important to realize that the custom is a celebration of the life of the person that just died, a sort of “send-off” to the next life.
The wake is an important part of the grieving process as family, friends and neighbors gather to comfort each other in their loss and support the immediate family of the deceased in coming to terms with their grief.
The traditional wake lasted from the time of death until the family left with the body for the funeral service. In times gone by, it was the task of women from the neighborhood to prepare the body of the deceased to be “laid out”. The corpse was washed, dressed in a shroud and then laid on a bed, and from that time was not left alone until the funeral.
Religious traditions, especially for Irish Catholics, were and still are very much a part of the wake. It was customary for a rosary to be placed in the hands of the deceased, and each visitor upon arriving would kneel next to the body to offer a prayer. The rosary was recited at some time during the night, often led by a priest or one of the neighbors.
There has been a long tradition in Ireland of having a wake for the deceased. It is a time when the family and friends of the deceased “stay awake” to mourn the passing of the loved one, to share memories of his or her life, to accept the sympathy and support of the Christian community, and to pray that the deceased may have eternal life. The wake normally takes place in the home of the deceased or in a funeral home. There are a number of prayer services that can take place during the wake, and which may be led by a priest, deacon or lay person. The wake normally ends with “The Vigil for the Deceased”. The Vigil is similar to the Liturgy of the Word at Sunday Mass, and is composed of the introductory rite, readings and psalm, some prayers of intercession, and a concluding rite.
CELEBRATING THE FUNERAL
Your priest will provide you with whatever advice or help you need in planning the liturgy. The funeral has three principal stages or moments: the vigil and reception of the body at the church; the central funeral liturgy, which normally includes Mass; and the rite of committal. These ritual moments together form your loved one’s final journey of farewell. They celebrate our faith in Christ’s resurrection and his consoling presence with us at this time.
Reception of the body at the church
The rite of reception of the body at the church may take place on the evening before the funeral Mass or on the day of the funeral itself. This ceremony has great significance because the church is the place where the community of faith gathers for worship, and where the deceased also worshipped. It is the place where people enter into new life through baptism and participation in the Eucharist. It is now the place where the community gathers to greet the deceased as one of their own. The rite of reception of the body begins with the sprinkling with water at the church door, the procession into the church, and opening prayer. The readings and a brief homily follow. Their purpose is to proclaim our hope in the resurrection and to offer support to those who mourn. The service ends with the prayers of intercession, Our Father, and a concluding prayer.
Use of Christian symbols
Some important symbols are used during the funeral liturgies. The Paschal Candle is placed close to the coffin when it is received at the church. It reminds us of Christ’s presence among us and of his victory over death, a victory in which we share through our baptism.
Holy water is used to sprinkle the coffin when it is received at the church, and during the final commendation at the end of the funeral Mass. It may also be used on other occasions during the wake and funeral: at the gathering in the presence of the body, during the vigil service, when the coffin is being closed, and at the time of committal or burial. The holy water reminds us of our baptism and the baptism of our deceased loved one.
A Pall may be placed on the coffin by family members or friends when it is received at the church. The pall is a large white cloth that covers the coffin during the liturgy. It is a reminder of the white robe that is put on the newly baptized to symbolise his or her new life in Christ. It is also a reminder that all are equal in the eyes of God.
A Bible or cross may be placed on the coffin. The Bible reminds us that Christians are called to live by the Word of God, and that it is by being faithful to that word that we gain eternal life. The cross reminds us that Christians are marked by the sign of the cross in baptism, and that it was through his suffering on the cross that Jesus won for us the promise of resurrection.
Incense is used to honour the body of the deceased, who through baptism became a living temple of God’s presence. It is also a sign of the community’s prayers for the deceased rising up to heaven, and a sign of farewell.
THE FUNERAL MASS AND FINAL COMMENDATION
The funeral Mass is the central liturgical celebration for the deceased. It is similar in structure to the Sunday Mass. You will already have chosen the readings and general intercessions. If at all possible, you should also ensure that there is singing and music.
After communion, there is the final commendation. It is the beginning of our final farewell to our deceased loved one. The focus is on separation, on letting go. But the focus is also on hope, as we look forward to the promise of eternal life. The priest goes to a place near the coffin. He invites us to pray in silence for our deceased loved one whom we now entrust to the merciful embrace of God. The coffin is then sprinkled with holy water and incensed. This may be done during or after the song of farewell. The song of farewell is a high point of this rite. It expresses our hope that Christ will take our deceased loved one to himself, and that we will one day be reunited in the heavenly kingdom. The rite finishes with the prayer of commendation. The final part of the journey now begins. A hymn should be sung as the body of the deceased is carried from the church.
The body is taken to its final resting place. There we take our leave of our deceased loved one. The rite of committal is simple: the priest leads a short scripture reading, and blesses the grave. There is a prayer of committal, during which the coffin is lowered into the grave, some intercessions, the Our Father, and finally, a concluding prayer over the people. The grave and coffin may be blessed with holy water and incensed. Some earth may also be scattered on the coffin. After the concluding prayer, a decade of the Rosary may be said.
If the body of your deceased loved one is to be cremated, the rite of committal takes place at the crematorium. Prayers from the rite of committal and other texts may be said if the ashes are to be interred at some time after the cremation.
AFTER THE FUNERAL
The Memorial Mass
It is traditional in many parishes to have a Memorial Mass or Month’s Mind for the deceased in the weeks following the funeral. The Month’s Mind is an opportunity to once again commend the deceased to our loving God. It is celebrated in an atmosphere of prayerful remembrance, of gratitude, and of hope in the resurrection. The pain of loss is not quite as intense now, and the Memorial Mass helps us to move forward into the future.
In the months and years following the death of your loved one, there will be other opportunities to remember and pray for him or her in a special way. It is good to have a Mass celebrated on the anniversary of the death, on All Souls’ Day, or during the month of November, and perhaps around the time of Cemetery Sunday. These will keep the memory of your loved one alive, and will help the process of grieving.
The above information is taken with permission from A Celebration of Life: When a Loved One Dies, published by Redemptorist Publications. This book contains a large centre section with readings for funeral and commemorative liturgies. The rest of the text (including the article above) is written by Gerry Moloney C.Ss.R. and George Wadding C.Ss.R.
Bereavement and Grief Support Groups
“And God will wipe away all tears from their eyes and there will be no more death neither sorrow nor crying, neither will there be any more pain” Res. 21:4
The Pastoral Care Programmes of most parishes in the United States include grief counseling and support groups.
When someone you love dies you don’t have to face your grief alone. Life, your life, has changed forever by the death of someone you love. You are left to go on with the business of living with this change and dealing with the hurt and pain of your loss. What’s happening to you is called GRIEF. It’s the painful, normal process of dealing with this dramatic change in your life.
The goals of Bereavement Support Groups are to
• Provide you with a safe space to feel, to cry, to rest and just be yourself.
• Help you deal with your feelings by sharing them in a supportive environment along with others who are grieving.
• Reflect with you on the meaning of all this through guided meditations on life, death and love.
RIP.ie is an information and services website dealing with all end of life matters in Ireland. It is a central gathering place for everything that one may need when a death occurs, and for future planning. Here you will find daily death notices, practical information, and a directory of local service providers such as funeral directors and monumental masons.
Contact your local parish, Irish Pastoral Center or Catholic Charities in the United States for advice and help to access these support groups.