Wake Me When It's Over

We all know Molly Brown didn't go down with the Titanic. So why host a wake in her former home, a Denver museum commemorating her name?

"Molly was unsinkable," local-history scholar Tom Noel attests. "Her mother was not."

Noel, who teaches local lore at CU-Denver, will be the ringleader Sunday, March 22, when the Molly Brown House Museum hosts an annual melodramatic re-enactment of an honest-to-God Irish Victorian wake, held yearly in honor of the late Johanna Tobin, Molly's dear old mum. A cast of Noel cohorts and proteges will be on hand to help.

Noel claims that Tobin died while rocking and smoking a clay pipe on the porch; he promises testimony at the wake from Officer Thomas, the policeman who found Tobin frozen in her rocker in 1898: "He'll tell how he found her stone-cold dead with brown stuff dribbling out of her mouth." But then again, museum curator Elizabeth Walker says there isn't a word of truth to it. "All we know is she died in 1904, and that's it," Walker maintains.

So maybe the wake's the thing. Aye.
The age-old Irish mourning rite, during which friends and relatives drink, arm wrestle, joke and otherwise make merry over--and sometimes at the expense of--someone's helpless dead body, is a dying tradition you might just have to be Irish to appreciate. Christine Quigley, writing about wakes in her book The Corpse: A History, relates how in past eras, a wake's central object of grief might have been given a hand of cards to hold during a game or a pipeful of tobacco. Sometimes the body would even be whisked out of the casket for a whirl around the dance floor.

There's to be some of that, too, at Tobin's wake. "Those caskets were not built for comfort," Noel says, obviously sympathetic to the poor woman who volunteers to play the corpse. "We'll have to get her out every now and then and let her smoke and drink," he adds. She may, however, prefer to return to her refuge when the keening begins.

Keening, or wailing like an otherworldly banshee in inconsolable grief, is another highlight of the event, though that might depend on who happens to be there and who's even willing to do it. "Have you ever tried it?" Noel asks. "It's a wonderful catharsis. It's a primitive, primal-scream kind of thing that's refreshing for everyone, including the corpse." Pressed for further explanation, Noel is blunt: "When you do it, it's like vomiting--you get everything out of your system."

New this year to the wake, which also includes Celtic music, museum tours, refreshments and other Irish niceties, is a side trip to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for another slice of Molly Brown mythology, as well as a look at the cathedral's new spire. "We're going to see Molly's pew, number 6, which she rented for the family," Noel says. "The eleven o'clock mass was the society mass. The more important you were, the closer to the front you sat." Also on the agenda is a fire-and-brimstone explanation of why the cathedral was struck by lightning last year.

Finally, Noel encourages those attending to wear appropriate funereal garb and to come armed with jokes, since the Irish will go on all night telling them, if given the chance. There's a good reason for that, after all. "This would be great," Noel says, "except for the dead body in the room."


Irish Wake Melodrama. 1, 1:45 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 22, Molly Brown House Museum, 1340 Pennsylvania Street, $7-$10, 832-4092, ext. 16.


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