Traditions of honoring the dead

Traditionally, the Irish mark the death of their loved ones with a “wake,” today more commonly referred to as “reposing at home,” while Jews sit “shiva” at home.

Female legislators look on as the casket of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is carried following ceremonies honoring her at the US Capitol in Washington on September 25 (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)
Female legislators look on as the casket of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is carried following ceremonies honoring her at the US Capitol in Washington on September 25
(photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST / REUTERS)

Because of COVID-19, I have just had the sad and very strange experience of witnessing the funeral of a relative via a webcast. Funerals are inevitably emotional events that become an ever more frequent feature of one’s life with advancing years. But I never anticipated watching a funeral, which in normal circumstances I would have attended, as if it were part of a television program. It was not a Jewish funeral, so the ritual was not so familiar to me, and it set me thinking about the different ways in which human beings mourn and honor the departed.
There are two ways that, because I am Jewish with an Irish background, are more familiar to me, and there are some uncanny similarities between them. Traditionally, the Irish mark the death of their loved ones with a “wake,” today more commonly referred to as “reposing at home,” while Jews sit “shiva” at home. The idea behind both is that mourning is not only confined to the funeral. The dead deserve a longer period of remembrance, and the mourners need more time to grieve, to pay their respects and, yes, to celebrate a life. Both owe their origins to religious injunctions around which a variety of customs have evolved over time.
A major difference between them concerns the timing, The wake, [I am using the historic term, since much of what follows belongs to traditions not universally followed throughout Ireland, though, oddly enough, more likely to be clung to by Irish families living abroad] takes place at least two days before the funeral. The traditional family would keep the body of the deceased in a kind of “lying in state” to allow visitors to come to pay their respects. In the Jewish tradition, the funeral is held as soon as possible after the person dies and the seven day shiva follows.
The meaning of the word shiva needs no explanation to us; the word “wake” to describe a tradition associated with death certainly does, though I have not been offered anything totally convincing. Some say that death is like a third birthday in the sequence: birth, baptism, entry to heaven or a spiritual awakening. Contemporary Irish mourners have apparently dispensed with the mystery by opting to go for the more prosaic description of the custom. Reposing at home is precisely what happens in both Jewish and Irish traditions. Both involve the immediate family remaining indoors while relatives and friends visit to comfort them , to share memories of the departed and generally to demonstrate support.
The period during which such visits are welcomed is specified, allowing the family to have time to rest. In the case of the shiva, a time will be set aside for prayers; at the wake, for prayers, eulogies, maybe readings from Irish literature, especially poems and very often for songs. And here comes another major difference. The atmosphere at the shiva is principally solemn, although the telling of anecdotes from the life of the deceased may lighten it. A wake can be joyous, basically an occasion for celebration.
Food and drink are a feature of both customs. Visitors may arrive with whole meals to supplement what is provided and to help with the day by day chores of the bereaved family. And it is certainly customary for alcohol to be consumed at a wake, sometimes in substantial quantities Sustenance for the mourners is felt to ease the grieving process in cultures far outside the Jewish and Irish worlds.
Mirrors in a shiva house, as in a wake house, will be covered or turned to the wall throughout the mourning period. Various explanations for this custom may be found in the literature on the subject: “mirrors are the gateway to the next world and the dead person should be allowed a more spiritual exit;” that “the link between man being created in the image of God is temporarily broken when a person dies.” The one I prefer is that mourners thoughts should be directed to the person they mourn, not to themselves.
For the same reason mourners whether at a wake or a shiva are required to dress modestly, without refinement or any display of luxury, as physical appearance is of no importance during this period. In some Irish homes the clocks will be stopped as a record of the time of death and as another sign of respect, the inspiration of the beautiful mourners’ poem by W.H. Auden, “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.” During the year of the coronavirus, neither the traditional shiva nor the wake has been possible. It has been said that the restrictions imposed by the pandemic may so accustom us to virtual gatherings, we may even prefer them, Not me. Not after that webcast funeral. 
The writer is an author, journalist and former head of the British Desk at the Jerusalem Foundation