The Irish way of death celebrated

Katherine Butler has contributed a very touching piece to the Indy commending the Irish way of death, compared to death as the last English taboo. This is one area where the twin cultures differ, perhaps because of the earlier English retreat from religion. Will the Irish follow and lose touch with  death eventually?  Even if Protestants tend not to observe the full three fold  ritual favoured by Catholics,  they still owe a lot to it whether they realise it or not..I’ve  been struck  how   even some of the most scathing Slugger  comment is stilled  for the mourning  period of some victim they’ve never  recognised as a full human being  before.  Pity the Irish way of death doesn’t extend backwards a little into life, perhaps? Or is this asking too much?

The Irish are not known for being any less emotionally repressed than their British neighbours but they do death very well. Funerals come with up to three opportunities for mourners to show up: there’s the waking of the body, which is often in the home, the “removal” to the church, and, on the final day, a funeral mass and burial followed by a reception or meal.

My friends in the UK asked me about the open coffin with a mix of fascination and horror. I didn’t tell them how my mother’s grandchildren had knelt up on chairs to get a proper look, and to place drawings beside her, or how we’d rearranged her fringe because the undertaker had made it too fussy.

To English friends, it all “sounded ghastly”. But perhaps they are used to a culture where death remains taboo even when it’s staring you in the face


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  • FDM

    I have to concur.

    A great mate of mine from Mancheste [40] was killed in a car accident and I attended his funeral over there.

    Crematorium gig. I was actually up for getting burned myself up until that funeral.

    It felt hollow to me and I really didn’t get a sense of closure with the ceremony.

    I am going under turf when the great referee holds up my number. I agree that the multiple junctures and opportunities for grieving and being supported in that by family and friends is helpful. I think having something of a faith is helpful also, a consolation as they say.

  • Barnshee

    I have mixed feelings about it

    On occasion the extended aspect of it -wake-service -burial seemed to extend and exacerbate the grief and distress I The reception/meal is declining . Family and friends -in the old cliche “only meeting at weddings and” funerals”

    (Their appears to be a massive difference between rural and urban funerals )

    Cremation is a horror- the queue of hearses -the exit on the heels of the mourners of the previous event, through the floral tributes,conscious of the pressure behind.-horrible

  • Ruarai

    Thanks for sharing this Brian.

    I used to enjoy funerals as a child. I know that may sound ‘off’ but it’s for precisely the reasons expressed here. Granted, the funerals were so many largely because we were expected to attend seemingly everyone’s within a broad radius of geography or family ties. But it was intoxicating to be surrounded be so many family friends and relatives and neighbors and “here, who’s yer man with the mad laugh?” types.

    It was also a really good early lesson in thinking about how to consciously shape one’s life – how would you be remembered; who would care? Why do so many people care so much for neighbors (the answer, obviously, because being an active neighbor, friend, relative or colleague is a noble thing and worth the effort).

    Relatedly, although I tend to avoid being “offended” by things, I was silently seething a couple of years back at my US college’s tone-deaf and emotionally illiterate response to the death (a brutal murder) of one of my classmates, a women I’d traveled to China with not so long earlier. I just couldn’t understand the sheer lack of appropriate acknowledgement or engagement. It reeked, at best, of a HR manual augmented by a few “experts”; nothing real, or honest, or remotely helpful.

    Until reading that piece, I just didn’t understand it. Now the source of the contrast with home is a little clearer.

  • DoppiaVu

    Never been keen on open caskets. Whatever the undertakers do with the body, they never seem to get the face set correctly – I don’t want my last memory of someone’s face to be some sort of unnatural grimace.

    I think it is very good to do some sort of celebration of the deceased’s life, though. Probably the best family funeral (if there is such a thing) that we’ve had was for my father – we hired out a large area in a pub, put some money behind the bar, paid for snacks and invited everyone from the funeral. I finally got the chance to meet (and enjoy) some of the old boys that my dad used to talk about from the building sites of his youth.

  • glenda lough

    Although this is slightly off-topic I’m sure readers will be interested to learn that our own TV3 and TV5 in the UK are airing a co-production this Autumn based on ‘Come Dine With Me’ and ‘Four in a Bed’. To be titled ‘Come Die With Me’ it features four Hospices competing for an as yet undisclosed sum of money. Terminally ill people stay in each Hospice and fill in a questionaire at the end. For obvious reasons the question “would you stay here again?” is omitted.

  • sherdy

    I’m not really in favour of cremation, but it does rule out the possibility of being buried alive!

  • theelk11

    The open coffin allows a connection between the person you knew and loved/admired and the corpse in a coffin.
    They never look the same ( being dead an all) and in some way allows you to accept that the person is gone and what you are looking at is the shell. That and a slap of drink…..
    Both traditions in this place have a great tradition of not fearing death in a way the English seem unable to do.
    Having lived there, it is all closed coffins and embarrassed shuffling of feet.
    There is a lot of evidence that allowing close relatives into A&E departments and allowing them to watch a resuscitation of a relative with a gentle explanation of how futile ongoing resuscitation may be leads to less emotional trauma and a greater acceptance of the death.

  • Kevsterino

    One of my closest friends is half Irish and half Italian (and entirely American, for the record). He never misses a wedding on the Italian side of his family and goes to every funeral on the Irish side. The Irish deal with death with a great deal of empathy that finds easy expression. I feel the same about Jewish funerals.

  • Greenflag

    I recall vividly the first ‘corpse’I ever did see . It was that of my great grand uncle Billy D laid out on a mortuary slab in either the Coombe or the South Dublin Union .I was 7 . Billy had survived Omdurman (so did Churchill) , the Boer War , and being shot at by his niece (my grandmother a (Cumann Na Mban ) ) at the time of the Troubles (1918-1922). Her father never forgave her for that family indiscretion .

    However the saddest funeral I ever attended was that of a young Italian girl of 13 years .She was a classmate of my youngest son in a small town in Botswana . Death had been accidental .The priest who conducted the funeral mass was Irish .The funeral coordinator was an Englishman (the local banker) .The congregation was a mix of friends neighbours family and her father’s workforce -almost all local Botswanans .There were Italians , South Africans , Zimbabweans , Portuguese , Germans , Irish , English and even Russians among the congregation crowded into the small tin roofed church. Many would not have known the girl but knew the family.

    What I was’nt prepared for was the open coffin at the graveside set on funereal biers beside a huge mound of red african earth .The coffin had a glass lid covering and those who had not viewed the girl at the earlier home seeing lined up and walked past taking a last look at the young girl.

    I looked down at the serene sallow face of this beautiful kid and moved on . Others did the same . Then the priest said final prayers and the wooden lid was placed on top of the glass and bolted down.The noon day sun beat down relentlessly on the crowd surrounding the grave.

    As the coffin was lowered into the grave the girls mother let out a piercing heartfelt emotional cry that came from somewhere that I’d never heard before . And then she had to be taken away from the graveside by husband and close family . The gravediggers were already filling in the grave before the mourners had left .

    It was as I said the saddest funeral I ever attended . It was an honest funeral for all that .

    Kevsterino’s comment above with the Italian connection reminded me of that passing .

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, Greenflag.

  • For those of you who “enjoy” funerals, this is a genuinely very funny twitter feed:
    Some quotes:
    “Arrah sure ’twas the drink killed him.
    He was hit be the Guinness truck.”
    “”A great father, a gentleman, and a scholar” – lads,did any of ye actually see who’s above in the coffin?! I think I’m at the Wrong funeral”

  • Kevsterino

    Good post, Greenflag. I grew up surrounded by Italians. Same neighborhood as Yogi Berra, if you know who that is. Italian funerals I find to be especially sad affairs, but when it is a youngster, that is more than I can stand.

  • Greenflag

    Who has’nt heard of Yogi Berra’s infamous mangled laconic wisdoms ?

    Some of his better known truisms still have resonance even today .

    ” We made too many wrong mistakes”

    (A reference to the UUP perhaps 😉 )

    ” The future ain’t what it used to be ”

    (A comment on the Western world’s current economy )

    ” If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be’

    A sagacious note of warning to all ideologues everywhere and those who would follow them to whatever Utopia lies just over the horizon .

    Coincidentally Dublin has it’s own ‘Yogi ‘ several in fact but one known as ‘Capper ‘ (Vincent Caprani ) comes to mind . Less laconic than Berra but his “Rowdy Rhymes & Recimitations ‘ is as good as gold in it’s debunking of what used to be called our hallowed institutions of church and state and faux patriotism .