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Coronavirus outbreak upends Irish funeral rituals | World news


The essence of an Irish wake is a corpse in an open coffin surrounded by people who are gathered in an enclosed space for hugs, handshakes, songs and reminiscences – a coming together to bid farewell to the dead.

It is a checklist, in other words, of things not to do in the era of coronavirus, which is why the ritual has been virtually banned.

Irish authorities have prohibited large gatherings and shut down much of the country to impose social distancing and slow the pandemic, with the Catholic church and funeral companies also issuing their own restrictions.

A cultural tradition dating back thousands of years now risks oblivion.

“This will have a huge impact on the Irish wake,” said Kevin Toolis, the author of My Father’s Wake: how the Irish teach us to live, love, and die.

“Visiting the family of a person who has died is a social norm in Ireland,” he said. “It’s almost a mortal obligation to shake your hand and say ‘sorry for your trouble’. It’s a huge social matrix to acknowledge grief and death and move forward.”

Such rituals had now become taboo, said Toolis. “The physicality of the dead body there on show, with a communal gathering that marks bereavement and loss – we won’t really be doing that.”

Sarah McAuley, a Dublin-based bereavement counsellor, said the inability to physically come together was a big loss. “Wakes give people a chance to come to the house and exchange memories, and mourning is about remembering. If you can’t mourn or grieve, it leads to depression or difficulties.”

A devastating toll from Covid-19 in Italy’s Lombardy region has led to even more draconian restrictions there, with the army escorting coffins for swift burials with little or no ceremony.

Ireland has not reached that extreme. Wakes and funeral services can still be held, but with strict controls on attendance.

Last week Ballyferriter, a village in county Kerry overlooking the Atlantic, gave a demonstration of what may become the new norm.

When an elderly resident, Betty Ryan, died, there was no wake at her home and parishioners could not enter the church for the funeral service. Maintaining social distancing, they lined the 2km road to the graveyard, silent sentinels making a poignant tribute that was filmed and widely shared on social media.

Seán Mac an tSíthigh
(@Buailtin)

Yesterday we buried a lovely woman. Due to #Covid19 there was no wake & our community couldn’t enter the church.

But the entire parish came out & lined the 2km road to graveyard to say goodbye to Betty Ryan.

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine #WestKerry pic.twitter.com/Sns99qUSad


March 20, 2020

Charlie McDonnell, a parish priest at Westport, County Mayo, said people were adapting to new rules in a collective effort to protect public health.

After an elderly woman died last week, her family held a small wake at home for a few visitors who respected social distancing. Everyone else phoned their condolences, said McDonnell. “It was very quiet and was advertised as private.”

Some churches were still holding funeral services but social distancing – staying at least a metre apart – meant that just 50 people could fill Westport’s church, which has capacity for 1,200, said the priest.

Mourners were sharing funeral readings and prayers via email rather than printing them, he said. “We’re evolving to a new era which is governed by the crisis. People are adjusting an awful lot better than you might have thought.”

Toolis said a cultural icon with roots dating more than 10,000 years should outlast the pandemic. “Something so enduring won’t disappear. Once the virus is gone these rites will reassert themselves.”



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