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Watching the Dead


During the days between death and burial, many customs are observed in all cultures. In Western countries, most traditional rituals surrounding death are not adhered to anymore, although some folk customs persist. An old and deep-rooted notion is that the corpse should never be left alone between death and burial. All societies, especially in earlier times, tended to fear the dead and to wish them safely gone. Some customs, such as the wake, might have originated to appease the dead by honouring them with a farewell occasion.

In the past, when a death had occurred, it was not customary to have an undertaker whisk away the dead, as it is done today. Instead, the corpse was cleaned; ceremoniously laid out with hands folded across the chest, surrounded by lighted wake candles; and kept watch over until the funeral. The death-watch-watch or wake, as it is known now, was originally taken literally, the corpse carefully watched until its burial. There was always the very real possibility that the person considered dead could be in a swoon and wake up at any time! Because evil spirits and demons were considered creatures of darkness fearing the light, wake candles were often also lit in all other rooms of the house, thereby keeping evil spirits away from the dying and dead. Thus, candles were often left to burn in a room for days after someone had died there. 

Besides lighting candles at the head, feet, and sides of the corpse, other rites were performed during the death-watch or wake. Throughout Europe, the belief persisted that a saucer of salt placed on a corpse’s chest before burial served to keep the devil at bay. Because of its qualities of preservation, salt was universally regarded as a symbol of eternity and immortality. Salt, an emblem of the immortal spirit, was apparently hated by the devil and was believed to keep the deceased’s ghost from walking about or ‘rising’, as a popular saying in the British Isles verifies: ‘There is no weight so heavy, as salt gets, when it is on the dead’. This custom was widespread in Europe, and according to the Dictionary of Superstition by Iona Opie, recorded as late as the 1950s.154

During the wake, a coin known in England as Charon’s fee or Charon’s toll was often placed on the corpse’s closed eyelids. This custom stemmed from ancient Greece, where it was customary to place a coin in the mouth or hand of the deceased as a payment to Charon. He was believed to be a hideous old man ferrying the dead across the Underworld rivers of Acheron and Styx for the fare of an obolus. Curiously, this tradition is not only found in European countries. Ancient Inca mummies, when unwrapped, were found to have thin copper discs placed in their mouths. These discs constituted the fare to Xolotl, god of the Underworld, who guided the dead over the River Chicunauictlan. In Europe, providing for the deceased’s future needs is not common any more, although the Charon penny still accompanied the dead as recently as the late nineteenth century. 

In the past, among the common people, wakes were often get-togethers with much feasting and drinking. They were inducements for out-of-control debauchery and licentious behaviour, where no opportunity was neglected to make up for the loss and death of one human by trying at all costs to conceive another! 

The once traditional wake, or sitting-up with the corpse, has now become rare, with most people preferring not to keep the body in the house. Instead, an undertaker collects and ceremoniously lays out the deceased, thus making the loved one available for viewing and visitation by relatives and friends at the undertaker’s premises. 

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