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Reflections on Dying and Death in Ireland

In my experience in Ireland, large numbers attend funerals without being invited; there is no inviting. A person is usually waked and buried in around 3-5 days. Generally, you’d only be delayed, waiting for some close family member to get home on a flight from some far-flung corner of the world. After all, emigrants are Ireland's biggest export so it’s not uncommon. There were visits to churches where most are non-practicing members. Often the dead were non practicing too but that didn’t stop them getting in.

You go to the funeral if you knew them at all, friend or acquaintance and you want to show respect to them and show their families that they will be missed. If you really knew them you would go to the wake, the funeral, the graveyard and the ‘afters’. If you didn’t know them that well, you might feel uncomfortable at the wake and afters and sometimes even the graveyard is a bit too close for comfort...but nobody checks anyway.

The biggest fear I ever knew when attending a funeral was the question of what to say when you ‘go up’? This is when the funeral has happened and you are still in the church and the priest would invite the attendees to offer their condolences to the family, sitting in the front pews. You line up in a slow-moving procession, sweating and heart thumping because you know you have to do it, otherwise what was the point in coming. If they don’t see you there, you didn’t come. You didn’t pay your respects. I once went to the funeral of a colleague’s mother, who had been dying for some time. My colleague didn’t see me there. When I next saw her, I commented on how alike she was to her sister whereupon she melted into tears. She had thought nobody attended and felt the sadness of it. I was able to tell her that I and a number of others did in fact go but didn’t have the time from work to stay and offer condolences and that we were sure she had seen us. What a waste, unnecessary sadness. I saw firsthand the impact of not having your pain validated.

Until I was in the position of sitting in the front pews, after my sister had died, I never really understood the significance of those handshakes and muttered words of condolence. Whether genuine or not, whether thoughtful or not, they helped. They made your pain indirectly seen and somewhat salved.

After the service we took her coffin out to the hearse, stood outside waiting for the priest to come and throw yet more holy water on her and the car and the box, I knew a new fear. What do I say to these people who have travelled so far to attend this event. Am I a host, am I a victim, what is appropriate to chat about, should I be standing there crying, seeking consolation or being grateful for their efforts. I was lost. What do ya do? People came from all over the country, relations we hadn’t seen for 30 years, folks either me or one of my family had worked with before, school friends, new friends, folks from England where she had lived and worked. Because I think at an Irish funeral, you’re more in need of an excuse to NOT attend then to show up. I had worked in pharma and often struggled to get appointments to see doctors and specialist nurses; but they came. From right around the country, leaving their homes before sunup to be there for an 10am service. I was gobsmacked.

A neighbour of my parents was a well and truly retired, chief superintendent in the local Garda (police) station. He arranged a police escort for her hearse from the church to the graveyard some 30 mis drive away. They stopped traffic for her. She would have been thrilled. People look for an opportunity to show they care however they can.

A boyfriend of my younger sister’s best friend knocked on the door of the funeral cars we sat in as we waited to leave the church and he handed in a giant bag of chocolate and chips and drinks saying we probably hadn’t had time or been able to eat that morning or perhaps they would come in useful later. It was something I never forgot; the practicality of the gesture, the usefulness of it, the thoughtfulness of it. It turned out that his own father had died when he was younger and a relative had done the same for him and he had never forgotten the gesture either. Paying it forward as they say nowadays.

If it was the funeral of a kid from school, the entire school would usually attend the service. We would then be directed to line the route out of the church, all dressed in our school uniforms, so our friend would be sent off by a guard of honour. Thinking of it now, despite being involved in it we never had anything really explained. Other than the usual ‘you die and go to heaven.’ But I don’t remember I or any of my peers struggling with it. It was just sort of accepted. There is after all, some notion of security in blind faith. It didn’t need to be questioned or rationalised; we were told what to believe and as kids, we did.

I had a friend who fell asleep at the wheel, after working a double shift at the psychiatric hospital as a psych nurse and he drove into a wall. He was from just outside Dublin in Co Wicklow. His funeral cortege was huge. Hundreds of us walked behind the hearse, through his hometown, traffic was stopped as we made our way past his home where it is customary to stop for a few minutes so the dead can say their farewells to their homes before heading to the next and final home in the ground, at the graveyard. There was a feeling of camaraderie in the procession, a chance to feel the pain of loss without the cut being so deep that it scars. It’s an acceptable chance for people to openly grieve other recent losses.

The old religious traditions, in my experience were always for the funerals of my old great aunts and uncles and grandparents. As the younger generation, we would be commandeered to the kitchens to make endless teas and coffees and sandwiches and to cut up cakes and replenish plates of biscuits.

Our parents would be the ones responsible for the ‘religious’ traditions, wheeling out the candles and the crosses and the priest. Covering the mirrors and stopping the clocks. Drawing all the curtains and opening a single window in the room where the dead was laid out. They would sit with the body in its coffin and rattle off countless decades of the holy rosary. Often fuelled by a nip of some sort of alcoholic refreshment, they would eventually stumble and forget the very words they had been reciting for the past hour. This could go either way; one could get a fit of laughter or a fit of rage, depending on the dominate emotion of the orator.

As a child, I was fascinated by this show. Later when I was older and sat with my own sister, we did our best to be respectful, but humour won over. It was how my sister would have wanted it. She wasn’t ‘churchy,’ so our rosary attempt didn’t get very far. We simply took turns being in the room, holding her hands, fixing her hair and makeup, and generally making sure she looked as good as she could for her visitors. She was never left alone in the room, never left out of the party. Her funeral itself was a colourful event, she didn’t want anyone to wear black but most other funerals I have been too we did wear black. Although hers was the saddest one, it was the most colourful. There was food and drink and singing and shared stories and those who stayed too long and some tears and tissues and hugs.

I often think of the wearing of black to be a most useful aid. In today’s world where we all move too fast and are expected to get over everything quickly for fear of being brandished as ‘not coping.’

What about after the afters?

Like the wearing of mourning clothes in Victorian times for a year after a loved one’s death, perhaps reigniting the tradition of wearing the mourning arm band would be a visual aid to remind people to be gentle with each other and to be tender with each other and give each the time they need to move their loss to a place where they can cope. In the same way that it is easier for some to shout at customer services over the phone or to troll others online and abuse them, it is always much diminished behaviour when face to face. When others can see your pain, they are generally more understanding. That way people could take the band on and off depending on how they were coping on any particular day.

Sometimes I needed to not be reminded of my loss but had to face it every time a kindly soul wanted to be kind and their kindness had the opposite effect. In a time when everyone and everything has a flag, a ribbon, and a badge, with the aim of being recognised and treated differently or treated the same, a black arm band could bring our ever-retreating death phobic society into the light of the reality of death. It is here always, every day and every night and for everyone.

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