Irish Funeral Traditions, Customs, and Beliefs
Irish funerals typically include a few unique rituals and beliefs but are unique in their sendoff of the deceased. They offer a unique opportunity for friends and family to come together in celebration of the life that has been lost. It is an integral part of Irish culture to honor the passing of someone close to them, as well as provide comfort and support for those left behind.
Irish beliefs on death and dying
When a loved one dies, there are certain Irish funeral traditions that take place both at the funeral and well before it. Here are some of the beliefs that the Irish have after a loved one passes away:
- When someone has died, the family will typically open the window to allow the spirit of the person who has passed to leave. If the Irish wake is being held in the family's home, attendees will generally do their best to avoid blocking the exit so that the deceased's spirit has a clear exit from the home.
- Clocks are stopped at the time of death, a practice that is believed to prevent bad luck. (It also serves as a sign of respect for the person who has passed.)
- Mirrors in the house may be covered with shrouds to prevent the deceased's soul or spirit from being trapped inside.
These beliefs are meant to assist the soul of the deceased in their journey to what the Irish believe is a better place after someone has died.
An Irish wake is unlike other traditional wakes in that it is not just a formal gathering. It is more of a celebration of life than a somber affair, incorporating both music and storytelling as part of the service. An Irish wake is likely to turn into a party in honor of the person who passed away. They're typically complete with food, drinks, and a celebration of the person who passed away. If you're attending an Irish funeral or wake, don't be surprised if you end up taking a shot at some point during the ceremonies!
What to bring to an Irish Wake
If you're invited to an Irish wake, it is customary to bring food and drinks with you. This can be anything from a prepared meal or snacks, as well as beer, wine, whiskey, or other spirits. If you know the family well, it may be worth reaching out to them directly to ask what they would like you to bring. While Irish wakes will likely have a similar sort of theme and similarity, not all wakes are the same. Some families may lean into the mourning aspect of a wake more than others, so try to be mindful of that.
Irish funeral and burial traditions
Since much of the population in Ireland identifies as Catholic, Catholic traditions play a big part in many Irish funeral beliefs and rituals.
The typical order of service at a traditional Irish funeral looks as follows: Prayers, readings from the Bible, a eulogy or reflection from the family or clergy, hymns and songs (often traditional Irish folk music), and finally Communion.
Irish funeral songs
If you're attending an Irish funeral or are in charge of looking into music for a funeral, this is a good place to start. Playing culturally relevant music at a funeral can help bring comfort and a sense of belonging to those in attendance. It is not uncommon for traditional Irish music or popular modern songs with Irish roots to be played throughout the service.
Some popular Irish funeral song choices include:
- "Danny Boy"
- "The Parting Glass"
- "The Wexford Carol"
- "Slán Abhaile (Safe Home)"
- "Will Ye Go Lassie, Go?"
Irish funeral prayers, blessings, and poems
Another method of expression at Irish funerals is spoken word, whether that be in the form of a funeral poem, a prayer, or a blessing (or even another type of reading). Interestingly, some of the popular Irish funeral blessings are actually famous poems about death and dying. One popular example of this is the poem Death Is Nothing At All by Henry Scott-Holland, which reads:
Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened.
Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.
Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner.
All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
Though this is a poem, you may heard it read as an Irish funeral blessing or prayer during a traditional Irish funeral. Other prayers you may hear are prayers that are often recited at traditional Catholic funerals, such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be.
Traditional Gaelic blessings
If you're looking for shorter expressions of sympathy, you can also consider traditional Gaelic blessings. There are a variety of Gaelic blessings you can say at a traditional Irish funeral, but it's a good idea to stick to Gaelic blessings for the dead. Here are some Gaelic blessings and short prayers for the dead you can consider saying:
- "May the winds of Heaven blow softly, and whisper in your ear, how much we love and miss you, and wish that you were here."
- "The Lord's light should be upon them. May their courage never die."
- "May you see him/her in heaven."
- "May God level the road for his soul."
These can also serve as good choices if you're attending an Irish funeral and considering giving a toast to the deceased. Irish prayers for the dead are generally shorter, which makes them great to use in toasts and as a greeting or parting saying to the family of your loved one. Alternatively, if you'd like an Irish prayer for death that's rooted in the Bible or want to quote a specific verse, you can consider choosing one of these passages:
- "For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 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
- "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." – Revelation 21:4
- "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters." – Psalm 23:1-2
Now that you have a little more information on Irish funeral traditions, you can feel more prepared for what to expect if you attend an Irish funeral. While Irish funerals may include a time for celebrating, sharing good food, and even drinking -- it is still important to remember that the tone of an Irish funeral should be one of respect for the deceased.