Roisin Gorman: No-one does funerals and wakes quite like the Irish
“It’s not a competition but when it comes to death, we win by several hearse lengths and take home the funereal flowers”
We do death well, and after the tears have dried it should be a cause for celebration.
The issue came up recently with the experience of Irish versus non-Irish funerals, and it’s not a competition but we win by several hearse lengths and take home the funereal flowers.
The non-Irish — OK, English — service took place so long after the death we had to remind ourselves who we, and the people on Zoom, were sad for again.
A service should take place in the midst of grief, not when you’ve been back to work, attempted to get on with life, had a haircut, done a few weekly shops and got plunged back into sadness again.
An Irish undertaker now based in England whom I interviewed a few years ago, confessed he had to make the cultural shift to the deceased being in the funeral home for weeks where not a sinner went near them, before a service attended only by the nearest and dearest. He compared it to home where everyone who knew the deceased, went to school with them, worked with them, or knew anyone related to them would turn out, and bring a relative.
They’d also have been to the wake, where a community oiled by tea would gather in sandwich-fuelled solidarity to support a family through their grief while it was fresh.
In the family home, the kettle never cools and nameless women gather to wash endless cups and proffer pastries from an infinite supply.
It’s unthinkable the deceased is left alone for a moment, usually in the living room, and it’s entirely normal to comment on how well they look before taking a seat next to the coffin and discussing anything from football to the Kardashians with assembled mourners.
It’s only in exceptional circumstances they’re not at home — because how do you say goodbye to someone who’s not there when choices about covering mirrors, stopping clocks and opening windows are optional?
The entire neighbourhood passes through the house while connections and acquaintances are renewed and everyone is sorry for your loss while taking a seat, some tea and a bun and providing a welcome distraction from sadness.
Prayers and priests and ritual suddenly become a welcome intrusion in a secular life, and a reminder that the last time anyone said an Our Father was at the last funeral.
Even when Covid-19 stopped the wake tradition, the glue of grief continued to bring out a community. I still get teary at memories of the street lined with neighbours and friends at my dad’s funeral, and the people who gathered in the church car park because the pandemic couldn’t completely force us apart.
It also gave the younger male relatives their first experience of carrying a coffin, but no one had advised them on the correct pace, and they reached ramming speed in seconds.
We’d already debated on Daddy’s favourite saint for the death notice until my mother declared St Anthony probably didn’t read the paper.
Post-funeral gatherings give the deceased their send-off by recounting their best times. And if drink isn’t an option then it’s inebriation by carbs. Crying is accepted, laughing is expected. All deaths are sad but not all are tragic if they come at the end of a life lived.
A month later, the family gathers for another remembrance on a smaller scale with food and drink and fondness. It’s the only way to do death — with an abundance of life.
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