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‘Doing death well’ no longer easy

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne Marie Flynn

It might sound counter-intuitive, but amidst the fear and uncertainty of Covid-19, there are many positives to be found. If nothing else, it reminds us of the vital importance to our wellbeing and societal structures of family, connection and rituals.
Spare a thought, then, or a prayer if you are so inclined, to those who have in recent weeks suffered the loss of a loved one and have had to grieve without the support of their community. For this must be the hardest and most painful of times, when they have been deprived of even the comfort of a handshake a hug or a shared memory, whispered at the head of a coffin.
In Ireland, we are renowned for ‘doing death well’. Society is becoming more secular, but while Catholic baptisms and weddings may be on the wane, funerals are still more likely to be aligned with the church, and the two or three-day funeral is still more or less the standard.  The traditional funeral, with its associated rituals is comforting in not just its familiarity, but in its unique way of commemorating the life of a loved one. To not have that opportunity to collectively celebrate and remember the departed within even the family structure, let alone the wider community must surely make the farewell all the lonelier.
Compared to other countries, even our close neighbours in the UK, our funerals are informal; no invitation is required, and usually, the coffin remains open for the duration of the visitation or the wake. Children are usually welcome, and indeed, intrinsic to the process. The community shows its support in all sorts of practical ways; making sandwiches, directing traffic, making sure anyone who might want to pay their respects is informed. There will be lots of tea, and often something stronger. Few things move us like the knowledge that someone else is grieving; mall gestures, like traffic stopping for a funeral, show the reverence with which the rite of passing is held; these tiny tokens belying the magnitude of empathy that lies behind them.

Tradition and superstition
Death is still steeped in tradition and superstition. I still remember a time when clocks in a house were stopped at the time of death, and mirrors were covered during the wake; both marks of respect for the deceased. The wake itself is an ancient rite, whose origins are not entirely clear, but there was a time not so long ago when the purpose of a wake was to ensure that the dead literally did not wake. That time with a deceased loved one is no longer about ensuring they have definitely departed, but rather, it forms part of the healing process. While in the past, the wake sometimes involved ostentatious mourning, in these times it can often be a source of huge comfort; families watch over their loved one overnight, reminisce and share memories. A few drinks may be had, and indeed among tears there can be humour, irreverence and merriment – no bad thing during a celebration. Such a ritual can strengthen the bonds between the bereaved, who will support each other in the aftermath.
The funeral customs provide solace in their familiarity; while the shock and loss are at their rawest, there is some comfort in knowing the steps to be followed in the days ahead. When this routine is ripped away, and you are deprived of your support network, having instead only an empty church behind you, the pain of loss is amplified even further. A live stream cannot replace a hug or a handshake or the look that says: “I know what you are going through.”
In the days and weeks afterwards when people are trying adjust to the loss; that is the time to pick up the phone, to write a letter or card and to let people know that you are thinking of them; just because you could not come and stand with them in their immediate loss, does not mean they are not in your thoughts.
And spare a thought too for our funeral directors; trying to provide comfort at such a difficult time, in the absence of any semblance of normality. We will not forget.