Is the traditional Irish wake a thing of the past?

IT’S been almost a year since Ireland started putting restrictions in place to limit the spread of coronavirus.
For undertakers like Paschal Blake, it’s been a challenging time as the pandemic has caused extra pressure.
“It’s been quite a difficult year and one which has been particularly harrowing for families,” he said.
Mr Blake, who has been a funeral director in Letterkenny for over thirty years, said there has been a marked rise in funerals in the Cathedral town since the coronavirus, compared with the same period the previous year.
“We’ve seen a definite increase over the past twelve months as, sadly, Covid has hastened the death of many people. The cathedral has been particularly busy these past few weeks,” he said.
Rolling restrictions, first introduced to reduce the spread of Covid-19 last March, have meant that many families have not been able to mark the passing of a loved one in the way they traditionally would have done so.
“The biggest challenge has been trying to reassure and support families,” he explains.
Restrictions have made that harder because Mr Blake has ‘lost the ability’ to look families in the eyes and shake people by the hand.


Terrible time
That said, the same sensitivity and gentleness is shown to families as before the pandemic and he said most families have been very easy to deal with at this terrible time.
“We all have to comply with the rules and guidelines set down by the HSE and Government. It’s for everyone’s safety and I find that families are very compliant once they understand what’s going on.
“At present, there’s only ten people allowed inside the church for the funeral mass or service and that’s hard as I’ve seen situations where grand children have been forced to stand outside.
“That has been compounded by the fact that family members abroad haven’t been able to return home to attend the funeral of a loved one due to travel restrictions,” he said.
While there were a few initial problems with the number of people attending wakes, Mr Blake said that settled down after doctors in Donegal explained the risks associated with the spread of the disease.
“You never become hardened to human suffering. Many of these people have had to watch on as the coffin was closed on a loved one from minute one because of Covid,” he said.
In such cases, the mortuary team in Letterkenny University Hospital seal the coffin casket before the funeral director takes over and proceeds with the funeral arrangements.
“In the early days of the pandemic coffins were not even allowed into the church – and that included non-Covid deaths. The service would be viewed on the church website while the remains stayed at the home of the deceased. When the service was over they were then taken to their place of burial,” he said.



Traditional wake
Mr Blake believes that Covid-19 may signal the end of the traditional Irish wake while he’s also noticed that more and more people are choosing cremation over a traditional burial.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get back to the days of the big Donegal wake. People are out of practice while it’s also allowed families more time to grieve in the peace and quiet of their own home. They’ve been able to close the door behind them and spend quality time with their loved ones. It’s been beneficial,” he said.
It is now common to see friends, many of them elderly, dotted around the walls of the graveyard in masks to pay their respects at a distance.
“There’s still socially distanced guards of honour made up of former work colleagues or friends outside the church gates while people also gather along the route from the church to the cemetery,” he said.
“This past year I’ve attended more cremations than ever before. Demand is very high,” he added.
Before the Lakelands Crematorium opened in Cavan, it could take up to a week to book a slot at a crematorium in either Belfast or Dublin.
“Cavan is convenient. The fact that you can have a funeral service in Letterkenny in the morning and a cremation later that same day is appealing to more and more people. Before Cavan, you used to have to wait anything up to a week to get a slot,” he said.
“My hope is that they increase the numbers, sooner rather than later, to let more people attend the funeral mass or service of a loved one,” Mr Blake said.

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