My first corpse

An Irish Wake

An Irish Wake (Picture via http://www.burtonport.net)

It’s a catchy title, isn’t it? My first corpse. Sounds like the beginnings of a musical to me. I was ten years old when the elderly aunt of a family friend passed away. The time was 1979 and the place was Ireland: sure where else would it be?

As was the custom back then, the dead person’s body could be waked either at home or in a morgue. The Irish morgues are far different than the American versions; think funeral parlor without the coziness and smell of lilies. The starkness of the morgue often meant families chose to wake, say farewell, to the dead person at home. And this was the case for this particular dearly departed.

My sister was connected to the family, and I being curious, morbidly so, and being 10, wanted to see what a dead person looked like. I was brought along for the company. There were chairs lined along the walls throughout the house, all on one level. Mourners were seated and given tea, beer, whiskey and a sandwich or biscuit.

I stood at the doorway of the deceased’s bedroom, that was close enough for me. The guest of honor, the corpse, lay peacefully in her bed. She looked well, had great color, seemed well rested, and except for the lack of a heart beat, looked healthier than she had for years. The house was packed to the rafters with mourners. I was given a cup of tea and a fig roll, and then led to a chair, right beside the corpse.

Between sips of tea and nibbles of the fig roll, my side ward glances made sure that the corpse was still laying down. The noise of the cup rattling on the saucer, my hands shaking with fear, could have roused the dead, but thankfully the corpse remained horizontal until I had emptied the cup, ate the biscuit, and slightly soiled myself. My morbid curiosity now satisfied, I exited the house with all the other mourners and waited for the coffin to emerge from the main doorway.

We waited and watched as the pall bearers emerged, without the coffin. Some puked, others gagged, and others stood listless, their faces white as snow. A kindly neighbor had offered to “prepare the body” for burial. It seems there are some definite steps to follow when preparing a body for burial, and the kindly neighbor had neglected to follow one very important step.

Pass the bucket!

Pass the bucket!

As the men lifted the corpse from the bed to the coffin, the deceased’s bowels emptied. I’ll say this in Irish, “An corp raibh a thabhairt cac!” You can google translate that.The bad news was the men, still gagging and coughing, had to go back inside the house to put the lid on the coffin. The deceased, now contained in a mahogany wardrobe, my dad’s nickname for coffins, was placed in the hearse and transported to the local church. For the funeral mass the following day, the church was filled with flowers. I have never seen so many flowers at a funeral since.

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5 thoughts on “My first corpse

    • It was not so funny at the time, but it is a lost piece of Irish history, that seems to making a comeback actually. Funeral parlors/morticians prepare the remains for burial, but a lot of families are return to the tradition of waking their dead at home and not in funeral parlors.

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