What happened to the rosary at wakes?
One way of evacuating a funeral home via the back door is to have a priest come up the front stairs. Catholics of a certain vintage, such as those with vague lingering memories of the sinking of the Lusitania, may dread getting caught up in a moment of prayer. "Oh Lord!" they cry, "Hear comes himself for the rosary!"
More likely, he (or a pastoral associate) is there for the liturgy in the Order of Christian Funerals called the Vigil for the Deceased. Woven together of ritual and song, scripture and intercession, and often tender spontaneous words of rememberence, the vigil is a way of accompaning a grieving family across the threshold from shock and grief to blessed memory and the first stirrings of home.
In the recent past the rosary was the norm at a wake because the church lacked a clear pastoral plan for the prayers before the funeral Mass. Before World War II, funeral homes were rare, and most people washed and dressed their departed as best they could and propped them in a freshly made bed or in a pine box stretched across the kitchen chairs. The neighbors would visit, and people traveled a good distance to mourn, but usually the priest was not present. At some point the rosary would begin, and most folks came armed for the occasion with a string of beads.
The wake, particularly the Irish variety that formed the model for the American experience, was a domestic affair. There is a tale of a dour monsignor who did make the trek out to a mourning family's cottage, only to find the revelers having a "taste" in the kitchen and the poor deceased alone in the parlor, stretched out not on three chairs, as was the custom, but two. This disgrace was too much for the pastor to stomach, so he burst into the kitchen with the cry, "You are a disgrace, the lot of you. I want three chairs at once for Neil O'Hurley." After a tentative pause, the cry went up: "Hip, hip, hooray!" Most clergy knew better, and they stayed away, trusting that at some point, some nonheathen would commence the rosary.
Today the situation is not far removed. In a family that prays the rosary together, or for a person with a devotion to the Blessed Mother who loved that form of prayer, it would be most appropriate to fold this devotion into the vigil. But the rosary is secondary now to the vigil liturgy and the rich selection of ritual, scripture, texts, and hymns offered in the Order of Christian Funerals, which was issued in 1970. Some Christians cherish the rosary, but many don't. The rosary is private, devotional prayer, and no substitute for the liturgy, which should come first. Then, if the rosary was treasured by the departed, by all means, start us off!
This article appeared in the August 2008 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 73, No. 8, page 41).