As they talk passionately in chairs rearranged around the funeral home, my family members aren’t happy, but they aren’t sad either. They talk about how the dead loved the Yankees, or going to Cape Cod. They talk about anything except the body at the front of the room.
I remember scenes like this from my childhood, when Irish relatives close or distant passed away. I remember the happy parts of deaths: the storytelling, the laughter, the tears, and the smell of tobacco and old beer. The tears weren’t only due to sadness. The salty discharge was more about the void left by the person: the void of no more conversations, no more hugs, handshakes, or kisses. You cried when you realized you couldn’t pick up the phone to hear them, when you couldn’t ask them for advice, when you couldn’t see them smile. The funeral was immediately followed by a reception at a bar or a bar & restaurant (a fine, but important distinction). There were also parties between wake sessions and after long days of sitting in funeral homes. After my Uncle Paul passed away in Ireland in November of 2003, a mass was held across the Atlantic in remembrance at Saint Margaret of Corona’s in the Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale, where my grandparents lived since the 1960s. The church always served as a celebratory place in my family’s history. We celebrated the beginnings, the major events, and the ends of our lives here, and continue to do so. After the church we went to Kelly Ryan’s, a bar & restaurant on Mosholu Avenue.The party started off in a somber mood but, as most do, became animated with stories.
“I’ll never forget Paul had to have his laces on his sneakers taped down to make sure the loops were even,” I remembered my father commenting, recalling my late Uncle’s OCD. Everyone shuffled around the room, from group to group, telling stories and catching up. A relative, who will remain nameless, slipped me sips of beer. As a fifteen-year-old I felt mature. All the family and friends came together to celebrate a life, to remember their brother, son, cousin and friend. It was nice to feel part of that, to know that you weren’t alone.
On July 22nd, 2012, my grandmother Eleanor passed away after a long and painful battle with pancreatic cancer. It was a Sunday and I remember hating everything on the 2 train as I rode from Brooklyn, through Manhattan, and into the Bronx. I hated the darkness of the subway tunnels. I hated the sunlight on the elevated track. I hated every child, every adult, every teenager.
I arrived minutes after she passed. My family was sad, emotionally drained, and relieved. My grandmother had been sick for the entire year; by the time of her diagnosis, realistic treatment was too late. She had to wait out death in pain.
After my family said their goodbyes, we stood around the hospital waiting for the next steps. On Wednesday and Thursday we held wake sessions in the Bronx at Riverdale On Hudson funeral home, two blocks away from where the house at 411 West 261st Street, on the corner of Liebig Avenue, that my grandparents purchased out of foreclosure, renovated, and raised their seven children in.
Each wake session started out in a murmur, the shock of seeing your wife/mother/sister/aunt/grandmother/cousin/friend in an open coffin setting in. As each session progressed, as the attendees filed past the body and took open seats, the mood lightened. “Remember when Eleanor did…Have you ever seen this picture…She always really loved…” The tradition continued, the goal to remember her not as a victim but as someone who loved life, someone who never forgot your birthday (card arriving days before the actual birthday and a phone call on the day itself), someone who had an endless supply of cereal.
In between sessions we went back to my grandparents’ apartment on Fieldston Road, where they had lived since moving out of the large house. My extended family shared good food and cold beer. The planning was over and I feared the next day. The funeral and burial were the only things on my mind, but right now, I tried to focus on the apartment, on my family, on how different it felt without her there.
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“Between laughter and tears, wakes were kind of nice in Ireland,” says Mary. Mary, who came to America on holiday in 1969 and never left, is a hostess at Rory Dolan’s, an Irish bar & restaurant in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx (the restaurant technically sits on the Yonkers side of McLean Avenue, but many of the patrons and neighborhood dwellers have never considered this fact—ask anyone here, it’s the Bronx). Irish-Americans, over the course of a century and a half, have migrated northwards from the Five Points area in lower Manhattan, up the East Side, into the Bronx, and now a large contingent sits on the very northernmost edge of the city. A painted green line from the Saint Patrick’s Parade early this year highlighted the pride of locals, reflected brighter than the double yellow line on the pavement.
Rory Dolan’s helps to preserve one of the strongest traditions from Ireland, one that Mary vividly remembers from her younger years and that is slipping in preservation and popularity back home: Irish wakes. This is the process of laying out the body of the deceased of a relative or friend, so respect can be paid to the legacy of the person’s life and to their loved ones. Although the tradition is not unique to Ireland, the use of alcohol and tobacco to pay homage to the life lost is. In traditional Irish wakes, the house is set up with food of all kinds: whiskey, porter, wine, pipes, tobacco, and snuff. The clocks are stopped and the mirrors are covered as signs of respect. “Most of the wakes I go to,” Mary says, “the body is laid out in the exact room where they had died or where they were born.”
“You don’t have a funeral parlor in Ireland,” said David, a bartender who moved to New York in 2004. “The coffin is an open coffin in one of the rooms; a living room, a dining room, a bedroom. I think a wake, no disrespect to the deceased, it’s a little bit of a social event.”
The mourners travel to the home and first walk up the coffin and kneel in front. Next, they are welcomed by the relatives of the deceased and offer sympathy. The visitors are offered food, drink, tobacco, and snuff during their visit. Men go to the kitchen, or outside, to celebrate and share stories of the dead. As the drink, tobacco, and snuff is ingested, the party becomes more animated. This was and is what drives the important social aspects of the tradition—the stories shared among loved ones and newfound friends make the celebration intimate and unique. The Rosary is recited once at midnight and once toward the morning, usually led by the local priest or community leader. Around midnight most people leave, but close friends may remain with the family overnight. Traditionally, wakes could go on for two days. Many plates of food, bottles of porter and whiskey, and stories are shared and consumed.
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Rory Dolan’s sits across the street from David J Hodder & Son Funeral Home. During breaks, and after the wake is over, mourners come in for a snack or a drink, and “to carry on to the next stage of the evening,” as Mary puts it.
“Funerals come back here—some end up in singalongs. We had a mother of a child who was in Riverdance. She wanted the music from Riverdance played very softly inside and her child did a little dance. Mrs. Miles, she wanted it that way and she got it that way.” “Seeing how the restaurant is across the street, what a better way to celebrate then to come over in between sessions and have a pint,” David says. For many Irish-American families in the Bronx, Rory’s serves as a place to continue the tradition, and to hold up the one idea that all seem to grasp to: that wakes should be a celebration of life.
“Back home in Ireland, the evening would end in a music session,” says David. “Someone would break open a bottle of whiskey or a bottle of porter or the moonshine would come out. The accordions would come out and fiddles would come out and they’d have a sing and a dance.”
“It’s a social event. You’re getting to see friends you haven’t seen in many years, maybe decades; you’re getting together to tell tales. It’s a beautiful thing—as long as you’re not in the coffin.” Rory Dolan, the namesake of the restaurant, came to America in March of 1986 from County Cavan. “Three days before Saint Patrick’s Day and I’ve been here ever since,” he says. “Irish wakes are big. Sometimes we get hundreds of people across the street here. People feel comfortable coming even if they didn’t know the person that well. People like to be seen and offer respect to the family. This is the time when you hear more stories than you ever heard before. People will tell you about something that happened sixty years ago, something good he did or maybe something bad, something funny, whatever. They spend two or three days talking about them.”
My conversation with David ended with a joke: “I know this might be a little stereotypical,” he said, “but do you know what’s the difference between an Irish wake and an Irish wedding? One less drunk.”
But Irish people don’t have wakes with alcohol to forget the dead. Every person I spoke to about the tradition expressed the same idea: “Why would I want anyone being sad at my wake?”
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Garrett McGrath is an Assistant Managing Editor at Penguin Group USA, a graduate student at New York University, and a lover of New York City history. Follow him on Twitter @garrettpmcgrath.
Brendan Leach is a Brooklyn based cartoonist and illustrator. He used to drive a Zamboni in New Jersey, but now he writes and draws comics. His graphic novel “Iron Bound” will be published by Secret Acres Books in September 2013.
David Kimelman is a New York City based portrait, documentary and fine art photographer. His photographs have been exhibited at The International Center Of Photography ( ICP ), Hudson Beach Glass Gallery, and The Stonewall National Museum and Archives.