When my mother Alice was growing up, wakes were actually held in the homes. When a family member died, the funeral home prepared the body, placed it in the casket, and delivered it to the home. During the wake, friends and family would come to pay their respects. The wake was a celebration of life with food and drink.
My mother remembers her great-grandmother (Laura Washington) and grandfather (Joseph Brown) having a wake held in their home. Based on the time of the funeral, the body would be delivered to the home the day before, and be available until an hour or two prior to the funeral which was held in the church.
My Mom remembers Melzar (her father) telling her about one wake held in a home. At night, when the attendees fell asleep, someone set the body up in the casket with a sweet potato in his hand. Once positioned, the person went around the room waking folks up and pointing to the body in the casket. Needless to say, folks started to scream and run out of the house to safety! A few folks were injured trying to get away as soon as possible. Some had broken arms, legs, etc. The pranks became so prevalent that wakes stopped being held in the home! This story has been passed down through the generations on my Mom’s side of the family.
In doing some research, I ran across Irish Wakes which sounds very similar to what was happening during my Mother’s days. See the Irish Wake history below.
Also, I found information on the History of African-American Funeral Service.
History: WHAT IS AN “IRISH WAKE”? The traditional Irish Wake was commonplace around Ireland up until about the 1970’s. This was the process of Laying out the body of a departed relative in the house where they lived and /or died. All of the family and a few of the deceased ones neighbours and friends would gather at the house. The body was usually in a coffin in the parlour of the house or living room. There would be lots of food and plenty of drink to be consumed. People would come and socialize and remember the departed person’s life. This wasn’t a time for tears to say the least, it was more of a party than a funeral. It was the traditional Irish way of celebrating one’s life and ensuring that they had a good send off. A proper Irish Wake is worth the time and effort required to return to the old customs. It is hard to imagine a passing being complete without one!
Between The Dashes