Death without Ritual will be Hard on Communities

Reprinted from the Sunday Independent (Ireland), p. 18.

Some years ago, Thomas Lynch, an American undertaker and poet, with a long connection to County Clare, was asked what made a good funeral. “I think”, he said, “the essentials are a corpse, mourners, somebody to broker the changed relationship between the living and the dead—the peace between them—somebody to say a version of ‘Behold, I show you a mystery’, and then transport—some movement, do you know?—from here to there. We get them home again. We get them to the further shore. We get them into their grave, their tomb, their fire, up into the tree. We get them … onto the side of the mountain, where the birds come and pick the bones clean, and then we describe the birds as holy. It’s what we do. And humans, we’ve been doing it for 40 or 50,000 years. And the routine, the fashions changed a little bit, but the fundamental business is the same—corpse, mourners, sacred text, transport. We move them.”

My father, Patsy Sweeney, died aged 78, on Tuesday evening; we buried him in Ardara on Thursday morning. Death was not unexpected. And yet when death came, it came in this strange time of COVID-19. And so my father’s funeral involved only “the essentials”. We had his cancer-ravaged corpse and we had mourners, but necessarily far fewer than in normal circumstances. We had somebody to say a version of “Behold, I show you a mystery” and to broker the relationship between the living and the dead—and believers and non-believers agreed that Dean Lafferty, the parish priest, did it eloquently. And we had movement—from hospital deathbed to funeral home, funeral home to house, house to chapel, and chapel to grave, and Ciaran Shovlin, the undertaker, directed those movements with care and compassion.

But it was unnatural for people not to deal with death the only way that they have ever known. One could not but be conscious of the hands not proffered by friends and family, and the mumbled apologies for the rational refusal to do what one does by instinct when death comes—to reach out and touch the bereaved, to gather around them and the dead. It was hard on people, most especially close friends, particularly those friends close in age to my father, themselves now among the most vulnerable to a dangerous virus. Substitute solidarities were deeply appreciated—the friends and neighbours who came out of their houses to observe the movement of him. Likewise, calls, texts and messages from people unable to come and “pay their respects”.

It is hard on people not to pay their respects. For sure, a wake was a big miss. It grieved those who sat on benches beside my father in Beagh School or went to the bog with him or drank with him in John Big Francie’s or the Greenhouse—places closed long before the virus—not to be able to come together and mark his movement from here to there, his death. Communities have done it from time immemorial—the act of gathering to mark a departure is older than any sacred text. But, of course, there could not be a wake for my father; any non-essential gathering is now reckless in the extreme, and those who attend to the “essentials”—the priest and the undertaker—are brave.

Ritual matters, and none more so than those rituals associated with death. In the time of the Famine, there was shock when the blight came on the potatoes in September 1845 and the second and general failure of 1846 occasioned even greater shock. But nothing compared to the numbness in the winter of 1846–47, when death which had hitherto circled communities like an animal finally attacked. It was a numbness occasioned by both the scale of death—the numbers taken by hunger and disease—and the abandonment of traditional practices for dealing with it. Mourner-less funerals were much remarked upon. In that dark winter, it was “common” in west Cork to see “a father bearing a coffin on his shoulders, his head, or under his arm, according to the age of the dead child which it contains, and constituting in his own person, mourners, coffin-bearers, and funeral procession.” And so too was the inability to wash and dress the dead, or coffin and wake the dead in a room lit by candles: “Before the mortality that is at present devastating this country occurred, the decease of an individual drew together the neighbours and relatives for miles around—either to extol the virtues and good qualities of the deceased or to offer their sympathies and consolation to the suffering relatives. But, at present, the scene is completely changed—the deceased lies on his scanty sop, with neither light nor fire, nor the presence of friends”.

To be clear, calling the Famine to mind is not to suggest COVID-19 will bring this country to the condition of the late 1840s. It will not. But now and for months to come, people across Ireland will share, across time, with those who came before them and through the hardest of times a sense of being reduced, by not being able to pay their respects, by not fulfilling their obligation to the dead. And that will be hard, less on the immediately bereaved, who will understand, than on the wider circles of friends and family that form community, now unable to mourn and move the dead according to tradition.

In needing to stay apart from each other, will we realise how much we need each other? It remains to be seen if COVID-19 will disabuse us of our vanities. But laid bare now is the folly of a political class boasting of presiding over the most globalized economy in the world, the best little place in which to do business and all the other horseshit that it fed to citizens while failing to build a health service fit for them. Here, in 2019, the occupancy rate for hospital beds was 94.9%, the highest in the OECD, where the average was 75%; it was 61.6% per cent in Greece. We do not live in the best little place to get sick.

Letterkenny University Hospital, like so many Irish hospitals, was built piecemeal over generations as money became available or, more correctly in the last few decades, as it was made available: it was not built to a plan. And it has had problems as has the health service in general. Still, one could not fault the people who tended to my father in the last two weeks. And that extends particularly to the doctors, nurses, cleaners and caterers who chatted with him, as he lay dying, while worried themselves about the virus that is stalking us all—and, other than the elderly, it stalks none of us more than those who work in the health service. Those workers do an extraordinary job.

But then we all say that when, in troubled times, we see what they do. And then, our trouble over, sooner or later most of us forget—and the fellows who let the number of hospital beds per capita drop to dangerously low levels and failed to build up stocks of PPE for staff get re-elected. And the nurses and the doctors, the administrators, the caterers and cleaners, and all the others who make hospitals work as best they can keep on doing what they do, day in, day out.

It is ironic that my father should have died in a time of social distancing—social distancing was never his forte. Over now is a life in which he made no small contribution to education, republican activism, and mischievous good fun; he could put children to laugh by looking at them. And it was fun while it lasted, great fun, great great fun.

Go dté sé slán.


Breandan Mac Suibhne

Breandán Mac Suibhne is a historian of society and culture in modern Ireland and associate professor of History at Centenary University, New Jersey. Among his publications are The End of Outrage: Post-Famine Adjustment in Rural Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Subjects Lacking Words? The Gray Zone of the Great Famine (Quinnipiac University Press, 2017). He is editor of two major annotated editions, viz., John Gamble, Society and Manners in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland (Field Day, 2011) and, with David Dickson, Hugh Dorian's The Outer Edge of Ulster: A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal (Lilliput, 2000; University of Notre Dame Press, 2001). A founding editor, with critic Seamus Deane, of Field Day Review (2005–), a journal of political and literary culture, he has also edited, with Enda Delaney, Ireland's Great Famine and Popular Politics (Routledge, 2016).