The Wake of Dan O’Brien
The Irish tradition of the wake is not only a special family reunion in honour of the dead: it is also a period of transition. Those who died are not quite out of this world, and not quite in the next. Clifford Robillard described one such wake:
I remember Uncle Dan O’Brien, well, he wasn’t really my uncle, but we always called him Uncle because my Dad’s mother was an O’Brien and he was related to them. He didn’t have any close relations, except my Dad, Uncle Alec and Uncle Joe, so one night when Dan was real sick, Uncle Joe said: “We’ll bring him up home.” We couldn’t take him to our place because we had a bunch of kids at home.
I can see him yet. He was a very tall man and I was afraid of the old geezer. He was an usher at our church and when he passed the collection plate, he would hold it in front of you, and if you didn’t put anything in it, he’d shake the plate until you would be so embarrassed that you would either put something in or take something out.
We knew Uncle Dan was dying, so we would take turns staying up with him at Uncle Joe’s. Dan would groan: “Ow, Ow, Ow” and make a big fuss, scaring the daylights out of me. Tommy knew I was scared so when it was my turn, he would stay with me on the couch. Suddenly dan made a terrific noise and I woke Tommy up. Dan must have been looking for blankets, for he grabbed the curtains over his bed by mistake. The curtain road hit him on the head and the curtains were all twisted around his neck, choking him. Tommy grabbed the curtain and just pulled it off the rod. But that didn’t kill him. He died a couple of hours after.
Then we had to get him ready to be waked. Tommy said: “You and I will fix him up.” I had never put my hand on a dead body before. Tommy asked me to shave him and I was just young enough that I wasn’t shaving myself. He (Dan) had a long whisker as he had not shaved for months. I had to use Uncle Joe’s straight razor. Tommy said: “He won’t bleed if you cut him.”
I’ll tell you, I was afraid of him to start with. I didn’t make a good job of it. I thought he was coming to life again. Every little while his mouth would go: “Aaah.” Gas was coming up and I thought: “holy gee, he’s coming to life again.”
Tommy said: “We’ll have to plug that up.” He sent me out to his old Durant car outside to get some patching cement, normally used to patch tires. Then he fetched a roll of toilet paper and a tablespoon. We shoved paper down Dan’s throat mixed with patching cement and finally tied his jaw up with a towel.
While Uncle Joe went to get a casket, Tommy and I had to dress old Dan. We got him all washed up and ready to dress, but he was glove stiff, so we just cut his coat down the back and the pants the same way. After we got him all fixed up, be darned if it wasn’t Uncle Joe’s suit we had on old Danny. And when Uncle Joe went to get dressed up, the other one wouldn’t fit him. We had to undress old Danny again and sew up the pants and coat, the whole works.
That night, he was waked down at home. Somebody had to stay up with him all night. There was Joe Burns, Tommy O’Brien (who had helped me to get Dan ready), Ira Sturgeon and myself. There could have been other people too. We didn’t have any lights or electricity at that time, so at each end of the casket there was a candle. That was the only light in the living room.
We were all out in the kitchen talking. Sometime in the night, maybe one or two o’clock, Ira says to me: “You better go in and take a look at them candles.” They were burning down. I was thinking of all that toilet paper we had shoved down Dan’s throat. Anyway, I went in and looked over at the corner where the casket was: and, holy gee, he was moving in the casket. If I could have screamed you would heard me up here. But I just froze.
It was only old Molly, our black cat, that had jumped into the casket. But I’ll tell you, I thought I’d seen a ghost and that old Danny had come back fro sure.