Rising

The recent Easter holiday triggered thoughts of birth, death and renewal, of how the seasons of the year shift, as do the seasons of our lives.

And I am reminded that if my time in Ireland taught me anything, it is that no one does death like the Irish.  

There are rituals dating back centuries which still support and comfort the bereaved today. The home wake is common, especially in the west. I once went to the wake of an elderly woman who was laid out at home in her single bed, under a handmade quilt, holding a rosary in one hand and the latest lottery numbers in the other. Her room was tiny and narrow – more of a hall, really, with just enough room for several folding chairs lined opposite her bed, to allow for visitors as she made her passage down that hall to the next world.

I was touched by the tradition of mourners going to the airport and greeting the souls whose bodies were shipped back home to Ireland for burial from America, Australia, or England and the cortege that would inevitably follow the hearse the two hours back from Shannon to the local cemetery. Or the unspoken rule that a body would never be left alone in that nether time between death and burial. There were always a few in the village known to volunteer to stay with the bodies overnight, keeping company until they could be laid to rest. Or the convention that held one person in the village was responsible as a volunteer to pick out the location of the person’s burial plot as well as arrange for the friends and neighbors who would both dig the grave and shovel the dirt to cover it again with the mourners in attendance as witnesses.

All of this gave death a familiarity. It was very much both a family affair and a community one.

In the village where I lived, the funeral home was run by a family who also operated a gas (petrol) station, a grocer shop with frozen Magnum bars, Bulmer’s and Brennan’s bread, a pub and a trucking business – all on the same premises.

And the Irish, who are arguably the funniest people on the planet, have a way of imbuing even death with humor. My friend told me of a woman who lived at the top of her road who was 93, had no children, had never been married, and had lived her whole life in a simple cottage with no central heat, but had been moved to a nursing home. Her niece, an American living in Boston, decided she wanted her aunt to live out her remaining days in her own home. To prepare, the niece hired my friend’s brother to install central heat and ready the house for her return. The niece flew from Boston to help her aunt transition back home but the day after the niece arrived, the poor woman died. Preparations were made to wake the woman at home. My friend’s other brother was the one who volunteered to stay with the woman overnight.

“So imagine that,” my friend said. “The first time she ever had central heat, she was dead. And the first night she ever spent with a man, she was dead.”

One couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of it, because it was true, but also take comfort in the great and compassionate care her community offered her, because that also was true.