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Do you know where the term “a wake” came from? There are a few options.

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whisky. The combination would sometimes knock the imbibers out for a couple of days. (Lead is poisonous but being a malleable metal was commonly used for drinking vessels). Someone walking along the road would take them for dead (perhaps not unlike the very drunk young things after a night at the nightclub these days!) and prepare them for burial…

They were laid out on the kitchen table in the home for a couple of days (or in the parlour in Victorian times) and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait and see if they would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a wake. Or awake.

Another reason to hold a Wake or vigil:-

The consequence of England being old and small lead to other problems for the local vicars and priests. The local folks started running out of places to bury people in the church graveyards – which was a believed to be a very important need for the departed’s souls to be able to rest.

So they would dig up coffins and would take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, 1 out of 25 coffins were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realised they had been burying people alive!…

The graveyard shift was a very necessary undertaking.

So they would tie a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground and tie it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bell; thus, someone could be, “saved by the bell” or was considered a “dead ringer”.

It is interesting to understand why certain expressions and customs were regularly undertaken in the days when access to any medicine was unusual and access to doctors was rare and very expensive, even assuming that they could help much. There were no scans to check for brain activity or even work out what had happened etc. and even now some people after horrific injuries are able to survive and recover (as long as their vital requirements are met and then can come round from a coma many months or years later!)

Wakes are still traditionally held in some communities but they are becoming much less frequent as dying and death is now a more “hands off” and sanitised affair. The funeral directors are now “in charge” of this. Irish Catholics still hold wakes and some other groups. They can be emotionally very helpful for the family as part of the beginning of the grieving process so have other uses than just checking that their dearly beloved has indeed died.

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