“One of the few certainties in life is Death”
In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman who carries the souls of the newly deceased across the river to a place of healing for cleansing and purging the sins of humans. The river divided the world of the living from the world of the dead, suggesting that there might be life after death, and that people require proper preparations for death. A coin for the passage was sometimes placed in or on the mouth of a dead person as payment to Charon.
While growing up in Connemara Ireland, it was the local tradition when someone died, a wake was held in the house of the deceased where everyone gathered to mourn and celebrate. The customs of the wake served the living during the grief process. The body was usually washed, a bed prepared and rosary beads were put in between the fingers of the deceased. Candles were lit near the body where it was not to be left unattended for the entire wake. The family remained with their loved one until the burial. The community would then come to the house and pay their respects and comfort the family. Usually people would say “sorry for your troubles”. I sometimes remember people and the warmth was so sincere that it warmed my heart.
During my childhood I accompanied my father and mother to numerous wakes. When I had family pass away myself, we had wakes at the family home in Connemara .There was always tea, food, and drink offered to all who attended the wake. Since Ireland is such a catholic country, prayers and readings would be incorporated during the wake and the rosary was recited at midnight at the house. Reflecting back to these wakes, I do not think that they were just Catholic in origin because the house would be filled with family and neighbors taking comfort from one anther’s presence.
The undertaker usually looked after all the practical aspects during the traumatic time. I remember talking to our local undertaker in my area who was a real character. I remember a story that my grandfather told us about him as they were great friends. He said that he came down to the house one day to show my grandfather a new hearse he had just bought. He was very proud of it. My grandfather, being the wit he was, said “are you here to broker a deal for when I die so you can pay for this monstrous vehicle”? They laughed about it but here was a real ferryman.
An Irish wake was unfamiliar to my wife who had never seen the ritual in the house before. The thought of viewing and sleeping in the same house with a dead body can be uncomfortable if you have never experienced this before. The first time I took my wife to a wake was for my Aunt – my mom’s sister. As we drove to the wake, my wife asked many questions including where is the body? Is she in a coffin? Do people really sit up all night with the body in the house? Her final word to me was ” I’m not going into the room with the body!”. As we entered the home, another aunt of mine gathered my wife by the arm and led her to sit down and you guessed it – into the room where the body was laid out on the bed. My wife was amazed at how my aunt’s grandchildren came in and out of the room, sitting there eating their biscuits and chatting away. The wake can be a social event that unites the needs of the dead and the living. In Pagan Ireland this was well understood and wakes are what remain of this ritual for preparing the dead for the afterlife.
I decided I wanted to write this essay because in the last year here in Canada I have experienced death on this side of the Atlantic .A funeral director co-ordinates the entire thing for the family and it is a bit sterile for my liking. When my father- in-law passed away last year, my brother-in-law and I played music to celebrate his love for music. It was not dour and I felt it was healing for the family as we sang and laughed. During the internment a good friend of mine played the Irish uillean pipes. He played a lovely air called “Taimse Im’ Chodladh” which translates to I am asleep. It is a beautiful and haunting air to lament the person’ passing.
Recently I attended a wake for a friend’s family member. My other friend again played the same tune on the pipes and this time I said a few words about wakes and what they entail. We gathered the people outside to remember the deceased person and the idea was to bring forth a memory while the music was being played. It was quite a beautiful ceremony. After we left the wake, I said to my musician friend “we are modern day ferrymen from Greek mythology helping to transport souls from this life to the afterlife.
I have no religious affiliation to any church but I am not an atheist. I do believe in a force that animates all living things so what happens when we die. My research into ancient history has confirmed our ancestors knew a lot more about the afterlife than what we give them credit for. The ancients have always said that life is eternal. We should not wait for death to arrive to embark on making an attempt to resolve any issues with our loved ones. A wake in some way, is a reminder for the living to spend more time with the people we love. Life is very much about living and gathering experiences because the perceptions gained during these experiences is vital. To the ancients these experiences were keys or magical doorways for when the soul navigates through the afterlife. We are asked “did we learn the lesson or did we have a disdain for people or did we imbue softness to all living things?”.
We appear to overlook messages throughout our waking life which can include every moments between children and their grandparents; time spent with friends and family when we laugh or cry together. These moments are so important for when we arrive at the ferryman’s dock because he will ask us how we lived our lives and if we noticed those moments. No one really knows what happens to the soul after one dies. Civilizations have pursued this question throughout our collective memory. It is inevitable and we can not cheat death. All the great teachings talk about a juncture when all are judged on every act we take part here on earth and did we contribute towards its conservation . We will all meet our fate with the ferryman.