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The Year the Funeral Died by Margaret Kelleher

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Margaret Kelleher

Margaret Kelleher

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The Year the Funeral Died.

The closing of a life is not the time to be alone.

‘He’s gone but to wash him.’

My late mother was a great woman for the old sayings, but it took me years to really appreciate this one.

When a person died, the family took responsibility for washing, dressing, combing hair and laying out. it was the beginning of the lamenting process.

Irish funerals have always been both jubilant and profoundly sad, the celebration of a life lived and the mourning of one lost. The day of death was considered to be a person’s third birthday, the first being the day of birth and the second the day of Baptism.

Before funeral homes became popular, wakes took place at home. Clocks were stopped at the time the person died and mirrors were turned to the wall to facilitate an uninterrupted passage of the soul to Heaven.

Mourners brought sympathy gifts of enough food and alcohol to equal the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Once the body was laid out, it was never left unattended. This goes back to the time when beer was sipped from pewter mugs which contained lead. The resulting poisoning meant that people slept in a dead life state for up to four days before waking up.

The sharing of food and drink was a way to bond and heal, as well as celebrate the life of the departed. The family was wrapped in a blanket of comfort, support and solidarity.

All the ancient traditions became diluted over time, but they still existed. Before the funeral died in 2020, a typical send off would have been like this:

John died in hospital surrounded by his family. The death notice gave details of the funeral arrangements and everyone was welcome.

Within a few hours, all relatives, friends, colleagues and the dogs in the street would have been informed, as we like nothing better than a great send off.

Day one was usually reserved for family and friends.

Once the body had been laid out, the family and close friends sat by the coffin and took turns reciting decades of the rosary. The Hail Marys were counted on fingers and beads, and the filler prayers muttered by those who knew the gist of them…Hail Holy Queen, mother of mercy…

It was a ritual and it helped.

The first steppingstone across the river of grief.

On Day 2, the general public joined in. The family gathered for a longer sitting. The length of the queue was a sign of how well John was known and respected. Female mourners were advised to make sure their rings were , either removed or the stones turned inwards, as some of the handshakes could be bone crushing.

Hugs were exchanged and mutterings of ‘I’m sorry for your troubles’ became lifelines to be clung to.

Another step closer to the shore of acceptance.

Once the prayers were said, the curtains closed, giving the family their final oppertunity to say goodbye. This would be the last glimpse of John in this life.

One more step completed.

The next part was played out in Church. Family sat in the pews nearest the coffin and lines of mourners trailed up to offer their condolences. More hand shaking, more hugs, more shoulders to cry on, more arms to lean on. Words spoken, songs sung, tears shed and comfort given.

Just a little closer…

At the graveside, flowers were thrown on the coffin, more songs, more tears, more of everything that was needed.

Baby steps…

Finally came the meal in the local pub or restaurant. Funeral parties were easy to identify. All those men in black suits, white shirts and black ties, sombre at first, but beccoming more celebatory as the hours passed. This is how the Irish funeral worked. The time between death and burial gave that space necessary to come to terms with the loss of a loved one.

Neither the house nor the freezer was allowed to be empty for as long as was necessary.

One month later, the Month’s Mind was celebrated in the Church.

From March, 2020, churches were closed and Mass live streamed to those who could access it.

Now, lets look at the funeral of Billly who died in May 2020.

Billy died in hospital. His family was not allowed to be with him.

His death notice contained words along the following lines:

Due to HSE guidelines, the funeral mass will be private to the immediate family. We suggest using the online condolence page as an option to offer your sympathy.

This means that there will be no traditional funeral. The body will be coffined and taken to the church where the family and mourners must stay two metres apart. The number allowed will not exceed ten people. Shaking hands and hugging will not be permitted and mask wearing is encouraged.

At the graveside, even the family must socially distance themselves while their loved one is lowered.

Pubs are closed and hotels are not permitted to host parties over six people, so funeral parties cannot be accommodated.

Food and drinks must be consumed at home but only by members of the same household or a maximum of six people from three households.

During the past few months, we have read many harrowing accounts of one half of a couple being unable to attend their spouse’s funeral. We saw pictures of coffins being lowered with only the gravediggers and funeral staff present.

Numerous men and women became ill, went to hospital and vanished from their families lives. They died and were buried in the blink of an eye.

No kiss goodbye, no hug, no handshake, no comfort…nothing.

This weekend, I mentioned to my friend that a man we both knew had died.

‘That’s a funeral for us,’ was her initial reaction before the new normal dawned on her.

‘But there are no funerals anymore.’

The vital steppingstones have been removed, and those grieving are left to sink or swim.

No time to come to terms with their loss because the funeral is dead.

Ar dheis De go raibh a anam.

(c) Margaret Kelleher

About the author

Margaret Kelleher is a retired primary school teacher.
Her many interests include millinery, knitting, and, of course, writing. She is a member of Writers Ink and is working on her third novel while editing her second. She recently became an Independent Celebrant.

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