The Irish way of death

In Ireland we like to congratulate ourselves on the way we deal with death. Or, more precisely, with other people’s bereavements. There aren’t many places on the planet where the funeral of a cousin’s mother-in-law, taking place two days after she dies, will demand instant attendance, take priority over work, family, health, weather and money and necessitate a hell of a party.

A wake

I remember how, three decades ago, my mother and her sisters scrambled across to England in full funeral-emergency mode within twenty-four hours of her brother Paddy’s death. They then kicked their heels in East Anglia for ten days as the English side sat around with long faces talking to the undertakers. And not a party in sight. My poor mother thought she was on Mars.

That profound difference in funeral culture between the two islands can sometimes have more serious effects. One of the reasons English police were convinced of the guilt of the Birmingham Six was that five of the men were hightailing it to the funeral of a Belfast neighbour, who just happened to be an IRA man. They were only following the advice of my (other) Uncle Paddy: funerals are better than weddings because you don’t have to be invited.

Apart from the party, the main impulse underlying Irish funerals is, I think, simple tribal solidarity. The bigger the crowd around the grave, the smaller the burden to be carried by the immediate family.

Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, as an American psychotherapist (not my own, I hasten to add) once told me, many Irish people have trouble grieving properly. Maybe all that solidarity makes it harder, not easier, to let go of the dead.

In any case, our intense focus on obsequies has produced a uniquely Irish record source, the death notice. Since about 1940, a public announcement of the time and place of removal and burial has been a compulsory part of every Irish funeral, and often also includes the names of surviving next-of-kin, place of death and cemetery. Checking “the deaths” remains a ubiquitous social necessity. And checking old death notices is an excellent way of tracking distant cousins and forgotten addresses and burial places.

The original and still largest sources are newspapers, The Irish Press and The Irish Independent in particular, with local newspapers also very good. The single best collection of twentieth-century Irish newspapers is at, a subscription site.

More recently, has become a standard part of funeral announcements, free and fully searchable from 2006. It should also be a standard part of the toolkit of every Irish private eye genealogist.



18 thoughts on “The Irish way of death”

  1. My English mother-in-law once remarked to me “You bury them very quickly here” – she was staying with us in Dublin at the time. I only really appreciated what she meant when we spent 10 days kicking our heels in Manchester while we waited for her funeral to take place. But I feel that maybe it’s England that is unusual in the length of time between death and funeral : reading US death notices/obits (in many cases just as detailed as Irish ones, by the way!) makes it obvious that funerals there take place very soon after death

    1. The obit is a big tradition here in North America. Setting a funeral date is getting downright ridiculous because of coordinating family travel and venue availability. A recent in-law funeral was weeks after the death, because, in spite of much weeping and wailing at the bedside at the moment of passing (another American peculiarity—people don’t die, they “pass”) the funeral had to fit into pre-scheduled travel vacations. Really?

  2. As the son of Irish emigrants to the US, it’s my observation that the Irish brought their approach to deaths (and obituaries) with them in so far as wakes and parties and post burial luncheons. Speediness is a goal, tempered now more upon the ability and time needed for kin to travel. Big country, big travel times esp with families. (As in can’t fly a family of 8 back east for mom but they can drive it in 3 days….) I’ve driven 600 miles to get to a funeral of an uncle or aunt, you know that while it’s not expected, it kinda is. 🙂 So speediness does give way to allowing people time to attend.

  3. I was very young, when my grandfather was waked at his home. His coffin was placed on three chairs in the front room.

    When the nuns showed up, the coffin was stood upright in the corner, and the nuns were given the chairs.

    My fathers in-laws were horrified.

    To make matters even more complex, it was February, and the ground was too frozen to dig out. We had to wait until the thaw a few weeks later. My grandmother kept saying “when is that man going to leave me alone.”

    1. Well, my mom grew up in a Slovene American community in Joliet, IL. I have no idea if this was the norm for everyone. She said that they had the viewing/wake in the home and that everyone bought food and I’m sure they all enjoyed talking about the death and enjoying it as a social meeting. I am sure they were influenced by the relatives born in Slovenia. (My grandfather, grand aunt, great grandparents were all from there. My maternal grandmother was born in Joliet, but her elder siblings were born in Slovenia.)
      These days, as far as I know, an American who dies is whisked out of sight to the mortuary or funeral home and people sometimes find death hard to believe. But if your relative is in the front room, you know that person is gone, but is still among you. That actually seems healthier to me. Most people do Obits, so that friends can attend wakes or masses or funerals. Some are only attended by the family. I don’t actually know what my Irish/English/German family did in the past. I have to ask, but I don’t know if anyone alive now will know. The Irish had a church service and then often left from the church to the cemetery and published an obit. I don’t know anything of the customs they might have observed.

  4. My Mom used to tell tales of the great wakes that her extended family held in St. Paul, MN. Her favorite one was where the cousins tied strings around her dead Uncle’s wrists and had him sit up just in time to “scare” their most “proper” auntie. The Irish way of ending life is definitely the best!!!

  5. When my Irish Grandfather passed here in Ontario Canada, the whole family was there within hours, after 2 days of wakes, the party started. It’s what my Granddad wanted.
    The same happened for my Gran, my Mom and my Dad, my brothers funeral was held at the local arena, due to the volume of mourners, never seen so many men in tears.

  6. My maternal grandmother, Anna Malone nee Hogan was an avid wake attender in Binghamton, NY.. All important social occasions! When I was about six years, she took me to one. I had no idea what the occasion of the party was for…until I wondered over to the open coffin!. This was my first time seeing a corpse.

  7. When my great-grandmother Catherine McCarthy (a Canadian, of Irish immigrant parents) died in 1941, she was waked at home. While my mother was too young to remember any of it, a couple of her older sisters vividly recalled their grandmother’s body laid out in the front parlour, the mirrors all turned to the wall, and etc.

    My sense is that, by 1941, and at least in Ontario, Canada, this was a very Old World and old-fashioned way to do a wake and funeral. Most of my relatives had moved to commercial funeral parlours/homes by the 1920s, if not a bit earlier. They didn’t just use any old funeral parlour, of course: they only ever used either Whelan’s or Kelly’s, both of which catered to local Irish RCs.

    My question is: when did the Irish move from home to commercial funeral home, from the front parlour to a professional funeral parlour?

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