As my sophomore year of high school began in 1960, the country was buzzing with the coming election. An Irish American was running for president! My Irish relatives rallied to the call and even my Italian family members supported the candidate. He might be Irish but he was Catholic too! When John F. Kennedy’s campaign came to Philadelphia, my father was one of the official photographers. Proudly, I accompanied him to the events and watched as he took pictures of the man who would become the 35th President of the United States. I still have the negatives, some of my most treasured heirlooms.
For three years we followed every aspect of the Kennedy presidency. Then one bright November day in 1963, shots rang out in Dallas and our hero was assassinated. For days we were glued to the television crying and hypnotized in the outpouring of grief that gripped the nation.
A few years later, while making his own bid for the presidency, President Kennedy’s younger brother Robert was also assassinated. Again, the nation and our family mourned as one.
When a third Kennedy, the clan’s youngest child, stepped forward to make his bid for the Oval Office, we held our breath fearing for his life. But fate had other plans for Edward M. Kennedy. The opportunity to become President of the United States slipped away and he became instead The Lion of the Senate where for more than forty years he fought, and sometimes even roared, for the common good of the American people.
Ever the champion of the Constitution and the forward progress of the nation, when Barack Obama announced his intent to run for President, Senator Ted Kennedy, despite a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer, threw his prodigious support into the Obama campaign.
Then, last week, the People’s Champion was gone to join his brothers in the pages of history. Certainly we cried, but more than that we celebrated the life and passion of this great man with what must have been the biggest Irish wake ever held.
For many cultures, death is a semi-taboo subject, a happenstance to be dealt with in only the most serious, somber manner. In that the ancient Celts believed that a person’s demise was the gateway to a better world, their rituals surrounding the event resonated with joy as well as sorrow. In all but the rarest cases, it was a time to share warm anecdotes and celebrate the accomplishments of the deceased, affording much needed comfort for grieving family and friends.
Originally, a wake was held in the family home, usually in the parlor, from whence comes the term ‘funeral parlor’ used to describe modern undertaking establishments. Unlike today’s society that is awash with consumerism, in past ages personal possessions and household furnishings were meager, cherished, and commonly passed down generation to generation. One item that has survived but rarely is the ‘wake table.’ Consisting of a central plank flanked by two drop-down leaves, it was used for year-round dining but when a death occurred it would have become the focal furnishing of a wake as, with its side leaves folded down, the center plank was exactly the width of a coffin, enabling respectful mourners to approach the deceased for a final farewell.
Wakes were usually held several days after death, allowing friends who lived at a distance time to make the journey to pay their respects. At the moment of death all clocks in the house were stopped and time literally stood still until after the funeral service. As those closest to the deceased were often so distraught as to be unable to sleep, and it was believed to be bad luck to leave the body unattended, vigil was kept through the night, giving rise to the term ‘wake.’
So embedded in Irish tradition is the custom of ‘waking’ that during the 19th century, it became common to hold a wake for the brave souls who sought to escape Ireland’s Great Famine by emigrating overseas. At these ‘American Wakes’ friends and family shared one last bittersweet uproarious time with those whom they would probably never in life see again.
Just as, and most likely because, birth is a province exclusive to women, with the exception of the Last Rites of the Church performed by the parish priest, so too was it women’s charge to make all preparations for the deceased’s final public viewing. While the men sat talking in subdued tones, smoking, drinking uisce beatha (whiskey – the ‘water of life’), and often playing cards (with an unused hand dealt to the deceased), the wife or mother of the deceased was exempt from duties in deference to her grief. Meanwhile, neighbors known as mna cabhartha or ‘handy women’ cleaned, dressed and presented the body, opened all windows and doors so the departed soul could take wing, covered or removed any mirrors in the house lest someone spy the specter of death plotting to seize another victim, hung immaculate white sheets kept solely for waking the dead on and about the bier, and prepared food for those who would pay their last respects.
Women also played a key role during the wake itself, ‘keening’ vocal expression of the communal grief. While keening is usually equated with inarticulate wailing, it is often a sad song, a favorite perhaps of the deceased, or a lament composed on the spot extolling the departed’s virtue or circumstance of death. One such is “Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire.” The late 18th c. epic poem tells of the life and tragic demise of Art O’ Laoghaire. who was murdered by Abraham Morris at Carraig an Ime, County Cork on May 4, 1793. Composed extemporaneously at Art’s wake by his pregnant wife Eibhlin Dubh Ni Chonaill, the 390-line keening is one of the greatest love poems of the Irish language, one of its greatest laments, and one of the finest compositions to have survived from Irish oral literature.
When I remarked to a friend that I had watched all the ceremonies marking the passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, she asked “Why? You didn’t know him at all.” “True,” I answered, “but I respected him. I knew him to be not only my friend, but a friend to all Americans.” And I will always hold dear his words: “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.” Rest in peace, Teddy. Sláinte!