clogher cemetary 2 Beautiful cemetery in Clogherhead

Funerals, to state the obvious, are typically bleak affairs. Everyone wears black, there is a good deal of crying and I think it’s safe to say that everyone feels some sort of pressure to behave in an appropriate manner. This includes not smiling or laughing, keeping one’s head bowed down for a good portion of the event and speaking in soft, hushed tones.

Only two weeks after arriving in Ireland, I attended my first Irish wake and funeral for my friend Trevor’s father, Nicholas, who passed away after a long illness. The family chose to do a traditional Irish wake, which takes place over three days. Trevor, who is the eldest son, opted to have it at his house in Clogherhead, the fishing village where he had grown up. The open casket was placed in a room toward the front of the house, and for those three days friends and family came to pay their respects. For Americans, the idea of having a body in someone’s house is a morbid one. But I can say from personal experience that it was anything but.

sinead clare nicholas Me, Nicholas and Sinead at the Front Room pub in San Francisco, 1998

The house was bustling with activity during those three days; kids ran around and played, teenagers gossiped over cups of tea and friends caught up all while paying their respects to Trevor’s father. Everyone brought sandwiches, cakes and cookies so that people had plenty to eat and we made a million cups of tea over the course of those days. There were somber moments, like when the priest came by to bless the body, but for the most part it really was a celebration of Nicholas’ life. Even the children, who I expected would be uncomfortable around a dead body, were rather relaxed. It was heartening to see that they were more curious than afraid. Instead of making death something dark and sinister, the openness of the Irish wake created an atmosphere of reflection and positive remembrance. Smiling was encouraged. Laughter was all around.

clogher The cliffsides of Clogherhead

Because everyone is given a few days to process the death, the funeral itself is more a fond and final farewell than a tragic finale. We gathered at the Clogherhead church for mass before accompanying Nicholas to his final resting place, a beautiful hilltop cemetery overlooking the seaside village. Afterward we toasted his life at the local pub, another common part of the Irish send-off. I met Nicholas only once, when he came to visit Trevor in San Francisco. We took him to our local pub and had a great night full of pints, laughter and craic. So it was only fitting that we clinked our glasses to send Nicholas off to his next destination, where he will undoubtedly live on as the good and fun-loving man he was here on Earth.