Historic Funeral Traditions: Irish American

You’ll seldom see a symbolic St. Patrick on an Irish-American cemetery marker, because those symbols are rare. But, you might see a Celtic cross, the Virgin Mary or a sacrificial lamb on an altar as well as the IHS monogram that symbolizes Jesus if the deceased Irish-American was Catholic. Many genealogists look for those symbols to learn about their heritage.

Other defining characteristics of an Irish-American Catholic tradition includes the burial of the individual in a Catholic cemetery or other consecrated ground. Irish-American Protestants, on the other hand, might be buried in a public cemetery or a church graveyard or in a fraternal organization section of a cemetery if one is available. If you’re seeking an ancestor you think is Irish, then you might look for fraternal symbols on the tombstone or look for an inscription on the headstone that might state that person’s origins. Many Irish immigrants who died in America often had the name of the Irish county, civil parish or even the town of origin inscribed on the headstone.

Irish-American funerals have become very Americanized for the most part, as many Irish-Americans use funeral homes for the funeral rather than preparing the body at home. The wake, which might last two to three nights in the past, now consists of a family/friend gathering at the home of a relative or at a church hall or other public facility after the funeral service. These gatherings are used to pay respect to the departed loved one and to share in the joy of life, as friends and family share stories and even jokes about the deceased. Smoking, drinking and eating are part of the camaraderie and grief process.

There are two traditions that might still be practiced, as I am part Irish and I know of one tradition – that of kissing the corpse for a final goodbye before the casket is closed forever. The other tradition is fading, but some funerals still use a professional mourner to offer songs and chants during the funeral or the wake. This person was once known as a “caoiner.” Anytime you find that word in a story or a poem, you know that the story is based upon Irish tradition and its topic is death or mourning.

In the book, The New York Irish, by Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher, a story is told about a woman who was a caoiner. The excerpt, originally found in Irish Caoiners in America by Captain Thomas Norris, went like this:

“Over near Coill-an-Uimire, in Brooklyn, where we live, we were at an Irish wake the other night. It was the wake of a young Irish girl who had been married a year before this. The caoiner was an old country neighbor. She had not been asked to the wedding, and now at the wake she could not repress her satire. A verse of her caoin was:

“Mo chara’s mo stor thu
Do h-iarradh me air do thoraibh
Ni iosfain me air do phosa.
Ni iosfain punt feola
A’s do dheunach gluine no dho me.”

(My friend and my love,
I am invited to your wake
But was not invited to your wedding.
I would not have eaten a pound of meat
And a glass or two would have sufficed me.)

Read more about a current Irish funeral tradition, celebrated in Ireland today – the remembrance mass and feast.

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