The Irish Way Of Death

The rituals of Death and Funerals are something I never really understood until January 1986, when my own father died. I never really appreciated that extending a hand and saying “I am sorry for your loss” could actually help. Having spent the 1970s attending too many funerals, of elderly uncles and aunts as well as Troubles victim-friends and neighbours, I just did not “get” it. Yet a true Irishman is someone who is defined as someone who will miss his brothers wedding by dutifully attending a strangers funeral.

In any culture, Death, Grief and Funerals is an important time. In the Middle East, they bury people on the day after death. Here in Ireland, it is usually three days. In England it seems to be weeks. In USA, Death seems to be the ultimate taboo. It is maybe a cliche that it is the one subject not discussed in polite society. Arguably, a decade ago the comedy-drama “Six Feet Under” broke that taboo.

In writing this, I am conscious that talk about Death…not entirely seriously and not entirely frivilously will possibly offend. That is not my intention. My belief has always been that none of us get out of here alive. We may as well make the most of it.

Roselawn Earlier this week, I attended two family funerals. I picked up this leaflet at Roselawn Cremtorium. Although I have attended maybe four cremations, all were “Protestant” and none were family. As far as I know Roselawn, situated in the heart of loyalist Castlereagh is the only crematorium in Norn Iron …our tradition, especially with Catholics is for burial rather than cremation. The leaflet, produced by the British Cremation Society and frankly rather patronising and just a tad offensive. It accuses rank and file Catholics of not keeping up with modern Catholic thinking. Having said this, it is fairly accurate on perceived Catholic opposition to Cremation….that it was linked to nineteenth century secularism.

Yet talking to some elderly members of my extended family, its clear that some people are uncomfortable with Cremation. Not entirely a Catholic thing…I think its tradition as much as anything. We all have at least one home cemetry in my case spread over County Tyrone and County Armagh. People respect their family plots.

I am not good with graves. I rarely visit my family graves. I do not like the village in which my parents are buried. I feel no attachment with Cemetry Sunday and on the rare occasions that I visit ….I am inclined to think of Death rather than Life.

On the other hand, on the many occasions that my parents come into my mind…I inevitably think about Life.

I WANT to be cremated. I have felt like this since I was a child and saw an episode of The Twilight Zone(or was it Alfred Hitchcock Hour?) in which a man tried to escape prison by being buried alive….which worked well until his accomplices did not show up to dig him up. Of course since then I have heard many stories of people being buried alive…not least the true story of the Lurgan woman who “died once and was buried twice”.

As an adult, I dont fear being buried alive. It is after all 2013. But I think I prefer Cremation. A dead body is of course the shell in which a loved one lived….yet burying it six feet under is not to my taste. To me speeding up the whole ashes to ashes process by using a furnace is a better option. Scattering ashes to the wind at least leaves the impression that the body is everywhere rather than six feet under a muddy field.

Frankly my wife and sons at their first cremation did not “like” it But they will comply with my wishes. Actually on reflection, I dont mind. I will hardly complain. Funerals…the rite of passage should be about the bereaved NOT the deceased so whatever is best for them.

The actual cremation was a little bit impersonal…although it had followed a highly personal funeral Mass in a church several miles from Roselawn.

But travelling to and from Roselawn it was interesting to discuss my own funeral….although I have to say my sons seem to be the biggest cheapskates I have ever met. A cardboard box seems a bit tacky. On the other hand , the suggestion of balloons and strippers seems….over-expensive. My elder son has pointed out that this could be quite tasteful…the strippers will be wearing black. Appropriate music for my cremation …Johnny Cash singing “I Fell In To A Ring Of Fire” ….and while my wife puts the urn containing my ashes in a place of honour on the mantle while one of my daughters-in-law uses it as an ash tray. I could actually put on weight after I die.

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