Irish wakes were never meant to be like this …
Irish wakes were never meant to be like this
Western People 13.4.2020
When the famous spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, was a young man he spent some time back-packing through Ireland. One day he watched a burial in Donegal, fascinated by a group of men filling in a grave, as the grieving family watched in silence. He had never seen the practice before and what struck him was the way, when the task was almost complete, the men used the backs of their shovels to tap down the clay. The message communicated to him was that the ritual was saying to the bereaved, ‘This person is dead, really dead. There is no doubting now this obvious truth.’
In recent years the ritual of filling in the grave is not as common as heretofore but like other rituals we take for granted we often don’t avert to the purpose behind them. Or why they developed. They are part of a pattern, a background against which we measure our way of dealing with death. Strangely, for some like Nouwen from other cultures, they are signposts of a comfort zone, that in faith and in family, we have successfully created around the difficult experience of grieving those we love.
We are, as the Irish Times columnist noted recently, a funeral people. Funerals, unlike in some other cultures, are huge events in Ireland. A friend told me once about working in an office in Scandanavia, when a colleague broke down at work. It emerged that he had buried his mother that morning and was back at work that evening. It would be unthinkable, unimaginable, even shocking in Ireland.
When death occurs in Ireland, we step back for a moment or two and then we move effortlessly into funeral mode. There’s a familiar and tried and tested template for the family, community and necessary services. It’s a kaleidoscope of respect, mood, attitude, support-systems and rituals that often seems to have a life of its own but that mostly resonates with the need to create a platform for dealing with an experience that is earth-shattering. Above all, it respects the need for what we call closure. Or more accurately for pointing a direction towards the road to closure.
A key element is the support offered by the community. People gather at the home or funeral or funeral Mass and individually they offer their condolences. It may be no more than a brisk shake of the hand and a cliched formula of words (‘Sorry for your trouble’) but it’s fundamentally about respectful presence in solidarity with the grieving. And it’s only when you grieve that you appreciate how important it is.
The coronavirus has robbed us of many things, including our freedom and almost our hope, but the experience of dealing with the death and funeral obsequies of those we love adds an unconscionable burden at the present time.
Stories of family members watching from the distance as a loved one faces into what must be the loneliest experience of all and not been able to hold a hand or give a hug or a kiss seems almost beyond human endurance. A wife, now a widow, told a newspaper about how she had expected her husband to die at home and how she might have lain beside him to comfort him but never expected that their last moments together would be supervised by the health authorities and watching from a distance through a window.
The other, added weight to bear for the grieving is to be deprived of the comfort and consolation of the rites and rituals of a funeral. At present only ten people can attend a funeral Mass or a graveside and are expected to follow the rules about social distancing – to keep six feet apart, in church and in the cemetery. And the community response is limited to neighbours and friends sitting in their cars outside the church or in towns lining the streets as a mark of respect.
Interestingly the government, knowing the limits to human endurance and the place burying the dead has in our culture, didn’t seek to ban funeral Masses, though some dioceses have followed that route and the different signals being sent are exerting pressure on priests.
The virus has influenced our lives in ways unimaginable but the limitations around dealing with death and funerals may well be one of the most intractable in the long run. Grieving brings with it a variety of responses, some reasonable to the outside observer, others part of the blame game we play to lessen the pain of loss.
As we know if a priest or an undertaker or medical personnel get it wrong at the time of a funeral we never forget it – and the opposite holds good too. Such responses become part of an enduring family memory that will fester for years. When it comes to death and dying, everyone needs to acknowledge that the ground we stand in is a sacred space, not to be taken for granted.
That said, our obligation to the living has to take precedence. In boring but necessary repetition, the warnings keep coming from the authorities – social distancing, hygiene etiquette, stay at home – and they need to. As the cars head for seaside and holiday destinations for the long Easter break, the Gardaí (with their signed authority to send people home ‘in their back pockets’) are everywhere to be seen.
The sun may be shining but the journey towards the promised land of something approaching normality is far from over. And if grieving families have to accept the present difficult arrangements around death and funerals, the rest of us should be prepared to accept our more marginal sacrifices.
Plague literature, now back in vogue, chronicles the breakdown of all social decency under the full brunt of a pestilence. Despite the pain that Brendan chronicles, Ireland is bearing the ordeal with dignity and a sense of solidarity.
Here is Boccaccio on the plague in Florence in 1348:
From these things and many others like unto them or yet stranger divers fears and conceits were begotten in those who abode alive, which well nigh all tended to a very barbarous conclusion, namely, to shun and flee from the sick and all that pertained to them, and thus doing, each thought to secure immunity for himself. Some there were who conceived that to live moderately and keep oneself from all excess was the best defence against such a danger; wherefore, making up their company, they lived removed from every other and shut themselves up in those houses where none had been sick and where living was best; and there, using very temperately of the most delicate viands and the finest wines and eschewing all incontinence, they abode with music and such other diversions as they might have, never suffering themselves to speak with any nor choosing to hear any news from without of death or sick folk. Others, inclining to the contrary opinion, maintained that to carouse and make merry and go about singing and frolicking and satisfy the appetite in everything possible and laugh and scoff at whatsoever befell was a very certain remedy for such an ill. That which they said they put in practice as best they might, going about day and night, now to this tavern, now to that, drinking without stint or measure; and on this wise they did yet more freely in other folk’s houses, so but they scented there aught that liked or tempted them, as they might lightly do, for that every one—as he were to live no longer—had abandoned all care of his possessions, as of himself, wherefore the most part of the houses were become common good and strangers used them, whenas they happened upon them, like as the very owner might have done; and with all this bestial preoccupation, they still shunned the sick to the best of their power.
In this sore affliction and misery of our city, the reverend authority of the laws, both human and divine, was all in a manner dissolved and fallen into decay, for [lack of] the ministers and executors thereof, who, like other men, were all either dead or sick or else left so destitute of followers that they were unable to exercise any office, wherefore every one had license to do whatsoever pleased him. Many others held a middle course between the two aforesaid, not straitening themselves so exactly in the matter of diet as the first neither allowing themselves such license in drinking and other debauchery as the second, but using things in sufficiency, according to their appetites; nor did they seclude themselves, but went about, carrying in their hands, some flowers, some odoriferous herbs and other some4 divers kinds of spiceries, which they set often to their noses, accounting it an excellent thing to fortify the brain with such odours, more by token that the air seemed all heavy and attainted with the stench of the dead bodies and that of the sick and of the remedies used.
Some were of a more barbarous, though, peradventure, a surer way of thinking, avouching that there was no remedy against pestilences better than—no, nor any so good as—to flee before them; wherefore, moved by this reasoning and recking of nought but themselves, very many, both men and women, abandoned their own city, their own houses and homes, their kinsfolk and possessions, and sought the country seats of others, or, at the least, their own, as if the wrath of God, being moved to punish the iniquity of mankind, would not proceed to do so wheresoever they might be, but would content itself with afflicting those only who were found within the walls of their city, or as if they were persuaded that no person was to remain therein and that its last hour was come. And albeit these, who opined thus variously, died not all, yet neither did they all escape; nay, many of each way of thinking and in every place sickened of the plague and languished on all sides, well nigh abandoned, having themselves, what while they were whole, set the example to those who abode in health.
Indeed, leaving be that townsman avoided townsman and that well nigh no neighbour took thought unto other and that kinsfolk seldom or never visited one another and held no converse together save from afar, this tribulation had stricken such terror to the hearts of all, men and women alike, that brother forsook brother, uncle nephew and sister brother and oftentimes wife husband; nay (what is yet more extraordinary and well nigh incredible) fathers and mothers refused to visit or tend their very children, as they had not been theirs. By reason whereof there remained unto those (and the number of them, both males and females, was incalculable) who fell sick, none other succour than that which they owed either to the charity of friends (and of these there were few) or the greed of servants, who tended them, allured by high and extravagant wage; albeit, for all this, these latter were not grown many, and those men and women of mean understanding and for the most part unused to such offices, who served for well nigh nought but to reach things called for by the sick or to note when they died; and in the doing of these services many of them perished with their gain.
Of this abandonment of the sick by neighbours, kinsfolk and friends and of the scarcity of servants arose an usage before well nigh unheard, to wit, that no woman, how fair or lovesome or well-born soever she might be, once fallen sick, recked aught of having a man to tend her, whatever he might be, or young or old, and without any shame discovered to him every part of her body, no otherwise than she would have done to a woman, so but the necessity of her sickness required it; the which belike, in those who recovered, was the occasion of lesser modesty in time to come. Moreover, there ensued of this abandonment the death of many who5 peradventure, had they been succoured, would have escaped alive; wherefore, as well for the lack of the opportune services which the sick availed not to have as for the virulence of the plague, such was the multitude of those who died in the city by day and by night that it was an astonishment to hear tell thereof, much more to see it; and thence, as it were of necessity, there sprang up among those who abode alive things contrary to the pristine manners of the townsfolk.
It was then (even as we yet see it used) a custom that the kinswomen and she-neighbours of the dead should assemble in his house and there condole with those who more nearly pertained unto him, whilst his neighbours and many other citizens foregathered with his next of kin before his house, whither, according to the dead man’s quality, came the clergy, and he with funeral pomp of chants and candles was borne on the shoulders of his peers to the church chosen by himself before his death; which usages, after the virulence of the plague began to increase, were either altogether or for the most part laid aside, and other and strange customs sprang up in their stead. For that, not only did folk die without having a multitude of women about them, but many there were who departed this life without witness and few indeed were they to whom the pious plaints and bitter tears of their kinsfolk were vouchsafed; nay, in lieu of these things there obtained, for the most part, laughter and jests and gibes and feasting and merrymaking in company; which usance women, laying aside womanly pitifulness, had right well learned for their own safety.
Few, again, were they whose bodies were accompanied to the church by more than half a score or a dozen of their neighbours, and of these no worshipful and illustrious citizens, but a sort of blood-suckers, sprung from the dregs of the people, who styled themselves pickmen and did such offices for hire, shouldered the bier and bore it with hurried steps, not to that church which the dead man had chosen before his death, but most times to the nearest, behind five or six priests, with little light, and whiles none at all, which latter, with the aid of the said pickmen, thrust him into what grave soever they first found unoccupied, without troubling themselves with too long or too formal a service.
Here is Thucydides on the plague in Athens in 329-326 BCE:
Some victims were neglected and died; others died despite a great deal of care. There was not a single remedy, you might say, which ought to be applied to give relief, for what helped one sufferer harmed another. No kind of constitution, whether strong or weak, proved sufficient against the plague, but it killed off all, whatever regime was used to care for them. The most terrifying aspect of the whole affliction was the despair which resulted when someone realized that he had the disease: people immediately lost hope, and so through their attitude of mind were much more likely to let themselves go and not hold out. In addition, one person caught the disease through caring for another, and so they died like sheep: this was the greatest cause of loss of life. If people were afraid and unwilling to go near to others, they died in isolation, and many houses lost all their occupants through the lack of anyone to care for them. Those who did go near to others died, especially those with any claim to virtue, who from a sense of honor did not spare themselves in going to visit their friends, persisting when in the end even the members of the family were overcome by the scale of the disaster and gave up their dirges for the dead.
Those who had come through the disease had the greatest pity for the suffering and dying, since they had previous experience of it and were now feeling confident for themselves, as the disease did not attack the same person a second time, or at any rate not fatally. Those who recovered were congratulated by the others, and in their immediate elation cherished the vain hope that for the future they would be immune to death from any other disease.
The distress was aggravated by the migration from the country into the city, especially in the case of those who had themselves made the move. There were no houses for them, so they had to live in stifling huts in the hot season of the year, and destruction raged unchecked. The bodies of the dead and dying were piled on one another and people at the point of death reeled about the streets and around all the springs in their passion to find water. The sanctuaries in which people were camping were filled with corpses, as deaths took place even there: the disaster was overpowering, and as people did not know what would become of them, they tended to neglect the sacred and the secular alike. All the funeral customs which had previously been observed were thrown into confusion and the dead were buried in any way possible. Many who lacked friends, because so many had died before them, turned to shameless forms of disposal: some would put their own dead on someone else’s pyre, and set light to it before those who had prepared it could do so themselves; others threw the body they were carrying on to the top of another’s pyre when it was already alight, and slipped away.
In other respects, too, the plague marked the beginning of a decline to greater lawlessness in the city. People were more willing to dare to do things which they would not previously have admitted to enjoying, when they saw the sudden changes of fortune, as some who were prosperous suddenly died, and their property was immediately acquired by others who had previously been destitute. So they thought it reasonable to concentrate on immediate profit and pleasure, believing that their bodies and their possessions alike would be short-lived. No one was willing to persevere in struggling for what was considered an honorable result, since he could not be sure that he would not perish before he achieved it. What was pleasant in the short term, and what was in any way conducive to that, came to be accepted as honorable and useful. No fear of the gods or law of men had any restraining power, since it was judged to make no difference whether one was pious or not as all alike could be seen dying. No one expected to live long enough to have to pay the penalty for his misdeeds: people tended much more to think that a sentence already decided was hanging over them, and that before it was executed, they might reasonably get some enjoyment out of life.(II, 7)
Indeed “Irish Wakes were never meant to be like this”. Fr.Brendan’s article is a very sobering and welcome one. He highlights one of the major sorrows of the present time of severe crisis.
However, I would like to comment on another aspect of these terrible times. The people of God are now unable to avail of the sacrements. On the lead-up to Easter, it was announced that there would be a Reconciliation Service on-line from St.Mary’s Pro Catheral. I looked forward to this service but was dissapointed when in his introductory words the priest stated that there would not be an absolution. What was the purpose of this service without absolution ?.
Consider this possible form of service on-line with an absolution. The priest could say the following ‘To those of you who have been following this service, examining you conscience and admitting you sins to yourself and seeking absolution, I now absolve you from your sins’. The absolution is thus given with conditions applied.
This may seem a step too far but is it? There is a precedent, the Pope’s Urbi et Orbi blessing where a plenery indulgence is granted to those listening on radio or watching on TV but under conditions, namely; that they go to confession, receive the Eucharist and pray for the Pope’s intentions.
We are all in a new world which the rules of the old could not have foreseen. It is thus essential that the rules of the Church be reviewed and made relevant to today’s crisis as a matter of urgency.
I have often told friends over here–Scottish friends –that we Irish deal with death in a special way. And, Brendan’s article explains it perfectly. The Irish tradition, with our wakes and funerals, does travel abroad with our exiles however.
And thanks to Joe too for his historical perspective.
I had never realised that Henri Nouwen had had a Donegal experience.
When we first formed our SVdP conference here in my parish in Edinburgh I was searching for a suitable spiritual reading for our conference meetings. My friend, the late Mgr. Davie Gemmell suggested “Out of Solitude” by Henri Nouwen which was the first I had heard of Henri.
And then, “With Open Hands”, “Making All thing New” and others followed.
Sadly, we would later learn that Henri had lived with a lot of conflict and mental anguish in his own life.
God rest the dead.
Thanks very much, Brendan for your thoughtful and sensitively written article. Gratefully,