The Irish certainly had a tradition for elaborate wakes and strove to present the dearly departed “a good send-off.”
My family was no exception. Wakes were long family affairs lasting two or even three full days. People would go and spend the day there. There was often food in the basement of the funeral home. Although I would not call the atmosphere “festive” (though it has always amazed me how people will tell funny stories at wakes) there was a certain party-like atmosphere.
When my grandmother Jane Wall Ryan died in 1972, it was very important for the family that she had a good send-off. Going to wakes had been a sort of hobby of hers. She would scan the death notices every day and if she felt that she had even the remotest connection to the deceased, she would go to the wake. (One red letter day she managed to go to a total of three.) She was originally an Irish peasant girl and when she went to a wake she would (to my terrified astonishment) take the hand of the corpse. She claimed that she did this out of respect, but also to keep the person from haunting her. Since she often went to wakes of people she had never met it seemed to me that if she was worried about being haunted she would have been better off not going to the wake at all. But she didn’t think that way.
She had many, many grandchildren and her wake was full of kids. At first they were a bit afraid of her in the coffin, but eventually (as children will) they got used to it and my mother reported that a flock of them would gather around her and dare each other to touch her. She also said that after one of these dare sessions, when the children dispersed, my brother (who was about nine years old) came up to my mother and her brother and sister and said “Do you know what she looks like with her eyes open?”
Of course my mother, aunt, and uncle were appalled. Could the children have somehow managed to open her eyes? They were too afraid to go up and look. So they just waited there (a full twenty minutes as it happened) to see what the reaction would be of the first new guest that came in and went up to the coffin to pay their respects.
As it happened, my little brother’s question had been merely rhetorical and the incident passed into the family folklore as another amusing story about another wake.