What is a wake?

Monday, 12 November 2012

The original meaning of 'wake' was: 'a long period when people do not sleep'. at a wake the mourners stay up all night as a sign of respect to the dead person.

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.