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.