The need to mark someone's death as an event affecting a whole group of people who knew, or knew of, him or her is as fundamental to human life as the necessity to provide opportunities for private grief. This kind of social gathering is usually referred to as a wake. It takes various forms in particular parts of the world. Because death is a potentially frightening subject and there are many taboos surrounding it, wakes are often low-key occasions. Their origins, however, are in behavior that is less inhibited, and it is this to which one must turn in order to understand their psychological and sociological importance.
Definitions of Wake and Their Implications
Broadly speaking, wakes are parties or social gatherings held in connection with funerals. These sometimes involve keeping watch beside the corpse and behaving in a demonstrative way, either by lamenting or merry-making. This implication of unruliness is widespread. According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1978), the wake is "a vigil celebrated with junketing and dancing." The word primarily means, of course, to prevent someone from sleeping, to wake the person up, to disturb the person's slumber and make it impossible for him or her to slip back into it. The "junketing and dancing" take place in order to wake the person up again. That is why, compared with ordinary social behavior, wakes stand out as wild and unrestrained: They have to be "fit to wake the dead."
From this point of view, then, "waking the dead" is carried out mainly for the benefit of the dead themselves, in order to restore them to wakefulness. To be the expression of a consciously focused intention on the part of the living is its ritual function. Not merely to give a dead person "a good send off," but to keep the dead properly moving in the right direction, instead of simply losing consciousness. In religious terms this means making sure that the person goes on living in the dimension of being he or she must now enter upon. In other words, the deceased must be awake among the dead, a state of affairs that is held to be beneficial to the deceased's survivors as well.
There is evidence of wake-related behavior in all parts of the world. The practice of "waking the dead" is ancient. For example, in Homer's Iliad both Hector and Patrodus are depicted as having had funeral feasts, which, if they resembled those of Achilles and Aeneas, included games and contests of skill. The practice of "funeral games" occurs as a common theme in accounts of funeral behavior throughout the world.
Everywhere the underlying intention of the wake is to honor the dead person. The Irish antiquarian Sean O'Suilleabhain believes that the intention was originally to avert the person's rage at having died: "It was an attempt to heal the wound of death and to do final justice to the deceased while he was still physically present. After the burial, the opportunity to do so would be absent" (O'Suilleahbain 1967, p.172). Thus, the practice is held to be an expression of a straightforward fear of dead people and what they are able to do to the living, in accordance with the world-famous anthropologist James Frazer's rationale of ancient funeral customs in his Fear of the Dead in Primitive Religion (1933) and the evolutionary doctrine of C. E. Vulliamy, who associates such ideas with a primitive mentality that most of the human race has now grown out of.
These definitions, however, fail notably to account for the "revelry" and "merry-making" that are essential parts of the word's definition. The wake is easier to define than to explain; along with fear and awe, thanksgiving and praise are easy to account for in religious ceremonies surrounding death and dying, but a determination to play games and invent ways of amusing the mourners seems rather more than out of place in such circumstances. Those who claim to understand such behavior at all tend to do so in terms of a reaction against sadness or a celebration of corporate optimism in the face of death—conviviality called upon to reinforce solidarity. One commentator speaks of "creating a space for 'irrational' grief to be acted out" (Toolis 1995, p. 18); another of "energy and activity" used to "anaesthetise the bereaved" (Clare 1995, p.7). From an anthropological point of view, however, the aim of the wake is not to disguise death or even to oppose it but to proclaim it: to proclaim the meaning of its presence for the social group in which it has occurred and to assert its human significance in the face of one's defensive attempts to play it down. The wake overcomes human defenses by demonstrating the provisional nature of life as individual women and men.
Wakes around the World
The wake appears as a holy time of uncharacteristic behavior that is symbolic of a world that has been reduced to disorder. The reversal of characteristic actions is often seen as a method of signifying to departing spirits that they must henceforth find a new life for themselves. In fact, however, these "funeral reversals" have two purposes: Not only are they intended to confuse ghosts and stop them from finding their way back to the land of the living, but they represent the formlessness that characterizes the heart of the funeral process. The chaos through which the dead person must pass is reproduced in the chaotic reversals of social practice that occur during the mourning period, mirroring the contradictory emotions and impulses of bereaved individuals as they rebound between their need to suffer and be comforted, to remember and forget, in the urgency of their search for an escape from the anguish of the present. Thus symbols adopted to express discontinuity with the past and the affirmation of a new status and direction also carry a strong implication of present personal and social chaos. Such symbols and others indicating chaos are widespread throughout the world. In Ireland, for example, the wake was a kind of exaltation of unruliness. In 1853 James A. Prim, a learned member of the Royal Society of Antiquarians of Ireland, complained, "it is difficult to obtain precise details about the wake games because of their apparent obscurity" (Evans 1957, p. 290). He is quick to point out, however, that the obscurity was not indulged in for its own sake:
The peasantry had no idea of outraging propriety or religion in their performances, holding an unquestioned faith that such observances were right and proper at wakes, whilst under any other circumstances they would shrink with horror from such indelicate exhibitions. (Evans 1957, p. 290)
The obscurity and perversity belonged to the rite and were only to be regarded within the context of the rite as a whole. Prim described a game in which a mourner acts the role of a priest, the representative of all the forces of rationality and propriety, who enters into conflict with the master of the wake, a personage known as the Borekeen; the "priest" is first of all thoroughly discomfited and then finally expelled from the room. Again, in a game called Drawing the Ship out of the Mud, "the men actually presented themselves before the rest of the assembly, females as well as males, in a state of nudity" (Evans 1957, p. 291). In another favorite game, the women performers dressed up as men and "proceeded to conduct themselves in a very strange manner" (p. 291). Evans quotes descriptions of similar occurrences at African wakes, in which the female members of a tribe assume the dominant role in the proceedings and behave with unaccustomed lewdness, wearing men's clothing as part of the general reversal of normal behavior. In the same way, among the Ndembu, according to the scholar Victor Turner, "a multiplicity of conflict situations is correlated with a high frequency of ritual performance" (Turner 1974, p. 10). Turner describes how "instead of coming against one another in blind antagonisms of material interest . . . [opposing social principles] . . . are reinstituted against one another in the transcendent, conscious, recognisant unity of Ndembu society whose principles they are. And so, in a sense for a time, they actually become a play of forces instead of a bitter battle" (p. 71). The violence originates in frustration. It is the expression of a desire for obedience and conformity that cannot be satisfied.
In Rituals of Rebellion in South-East Africa (1954), Max Gluckman maintains that the purpose of such licensed outbreaks of violence and rejection is in fact to take nonconformity and dissent into the system by giving it the kind of social recognition afforded by all corporate rituals. "Such rituals of rebellion by canalising social tensions, perpetuate the established systems of political organisation" (p. 24). Thus, by its apparent exaltation of unruliness and perversity, the wake contrives to establish the primacy of that social order and stability which is sufficiently sure of itself to allow its opposite to be temporarily indulged. In itself, the very fact of public ritual asserts social order. Whatever the individual rite expresses is presented within the context of, and in relation to, the established fact of social belonging.
In Ireland, for example, up to the early years of the twenty-first century, the funeral wakes played a significant part in the social organization of Irish country life. The mere existence of such an institution was itself a symbol of anarchy. Wakes were officially deplored; however, they were secretly tolerated by the dominant Roman Catholic culture of the country. No doubt that the games described by O'Suilleahbain provided a welcome outlet for a variety of repressed feelings on the part of those who would have considered it inappropriate to express them while the deceased was still alive, even if they had been aware of harboring them at the time. The ceremonies with which a society greets the death of one of its members, though they may resemble unconscious patterns in the psychological life of individuals, are not to be simply identified with those patterns. What is expressed in the Irish wake is not merely an opportunity for individual mourners to find release for their feelings, but something more sociologically significant. This difference is not mainly one of quantity—many people finding relief from the unconscious pressure of the love-hate syndrome— but of quality. The ambivalence expressed in the wake is not a symptom, not even a symptom that special circumstances have revealed as outward signs of an unconscious malady, but a proclamation, a conscious message. It is not concerned with past feelings and attitudes but with the state of affairs in the present. The chaos of the wake is a public statement made about the present state, not of the individual but of the world. The wake is society's way of saying that, to a greater or lesser extent, according to the size of the social group involved and the importance of the dead person's role with that group, the world has been radically and permanently changed. For the mourners themselves the integrity of existence has been shattered, and the wake is the public image of an existential chaos. The revelers, pugilists, and buffoons described by O'Suilleabhain as being present at Irish wakes proclaim that, as of now, in the poet William Butler Yeats's words, "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold" (Yeats 1989, p. 124). Even given the possibility that somehow the world may be remade, it will never be the same again. And for the present, the wake's explicit message is the proclamation of chaos and confusion in the place of order.
Ireland provides specific examples of the kind of funeral behavior observed in Europe, Asia, North and South America, Africa, Australia, and the Indian subcontinent. The scholar Kevin Toolis's 1995 article in the Guardian Weekend bears eloquent witness to the fact that genuinely expressive wake practices still exist in Ireland. Toolis has experience of what O'Suilleahbain calls "the old funeral movements" in traditional ways of dealing with death persisting even in the twenty-first century in districts and neighborhoods within Great Britain. Generally speaking, however, as the communal expression of personal feeling has become more privatized in those parts of the world influenced by contemporary Western attitudes, the practice of providing funeral wakes has become something of a rarity. From the point of view of bereaved individuals, families, and communities, this must be regarded as a deprivation, in that a powerful way of registering the significance of somebody's life, and the loss sustained by everyone as aresult of that person's death, is no longer available to them. In its own way the "primitive" outrageousness of the wake was an expression of emotional honesty. In its absence, other ways must be found of coming clean about death.
Wakes in the United States
In his extensive study of the wake in the United States, particularly the Central Appalachian section, James Crissman found a variety of purposes for the death vigil in addition to "rousing the ghost," including friends and/or family staying up all night to keep insects, rodents, and cats away from the corpse. One example is given where "the cat got to the deceased and ate the fingers before it was discovered and removed" (Crissman 1994, p. 70). Among the more superstitious, there was a fear that members of the spirit world might carry the body away before it could be inhumed. In addition, some wakers guarded the corpse to deter "body snatchers" that might steal the body for medical purposes. Before embalming, the body had to be scrutinized continuously to make sure the person was actually dead. Another reason for the death vigil was that it was a time to pay one's respects to the departed and give comfort to the bereaved family. It also provided some people with a chance to socialize, and it gave family members a chance to adjust to the loss of their loved one before the corpse was placed in the ground. Finally, the wake sometimes served the purpose of guarding the body pending the arrival of a distant relative.
Psychologically speaking, funerals help human beings to die in the past so that they can live in the future. Wakes provide a crucial stimulus for the real personal changes on which personal growth depends. Certainly it would be profoundly valuable for the human understanding of funerals if the emotional effect of the wake could be studied and compared with the kind of funeral in which the expression of emotion is discouraged. In this vital area of human understanding of death, the field remains open for primary research; but wherever wakes survive, they act as powerful symbols of human reality as people struggle to express the reality of their experience of life and death.
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