Death ‘evocative’: Irish methods of grief unite people

DUBLIN – Images and monuments of Celtic crosses, angels smiting devils, the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ cover the tombs and headstones of Glasnevin Cemetery.

Victims and rebels of the 1916 Easter Rising lie peacefully under the earth, their fighting over Irish independence behind them, and Catholics and Protestants lie together at rest. In less visited parts of the graveyard, family crypts stand dug into the earth, their cold metal doors a hard reminder of our common end.

What distinguishes death in Ireland, both in the present and the past, at least as described by Richard English, a historian and professor at Queen’s University Belfast, is that it comes with a certain “code of restraint.” Regardless of how devout or how religious the person who has died, funerals and wakes acted and continue to act as community gathering spaces where class and sectarian struggles can be momentarily set aside.

Glasnevin stands as a testament to that restraint. For years under British control, Catholics had difficulty receiving a Catholic burial. Glasnevin was created specifically to fulfill that need and became the first home for dead Dublin Catholics to be buried. Now, even though secularization and urbanization have changed the Irish landscape, Catholics and Protestants still lie together beneath Glasnevin graves.

Even during Northern Ireland’s Troubles, English said it was understood that death and grief was a special time.

And while more and more people in Ireland consider themselves non-religious, there is still a respect for funerals and around death.

You can see that respect at Glasnevin. Many headstones carry fresh flowers and messages from loved ones. Some wall memorials have mementos hanging next to the names of the dead. Familiar words cover almost every grave, repetitive and yet different.

“Mary, Mother of God Pray for Us.” 

“Requiescant in pace”

“In Loving Memory”

But there are also signs of time and support in short supply.

Other graves, further inside the cemetery, lie in disrepair, their words faded and surfaces scratched, as  if no one has found the time to visit them in years.

Over the course of several years, even decades, the grave can collapse which is what causes the gravestones to tilt and become damaged.

Outside of Glasnevin, other aspects of death are changing, too. David Fanagan, funeral director and former CEO of Fanagan’s Funeral Services, said funerals all used to involve two or even three days of grieving, a wake and a removal to the church.

Now around 90 percent of funerals in Dublin happen in one day, and many don’t go to the church anymore.

David McGowan, a funeral director who lives and works in Ballina and Sligo in rural western Ireland, said the ways of mourning in urban settings has changed in other ways as well. Some folks are grieving and mourning through social media, while others prefer simple celebrations of life. But everyone needs at least some time.

One family recounted to him the story of a funeral in Dublin where the director came through swinging his keys over and over, hastening the family to be done, McGowan said.

According to a 2014 survey from the Irish Hospice Foundation, 57 percent of Irish people think death is not talked about enough anymore. That theory contrasts with the historic way the Irish have handled and viewed death, both in person and in literature.

Olivia O’Leary, a journalist for the Irish RTE station, said the Irish, especially in literature, have been far more open about death than other developed Western nations.

“There is a readiness to talk about death in Ireland,” O’Leary said. “We don’t hide it away in the corner.”

But if the 2014 survey is accurate, people don’t feel they are talking about death enough.

And that’s a problem, McGowan explained.

He said if the bereaved don’t spend enough time processing their grief weeks, months and even years later, it swells up again. You need time to see the body and to grieve properly.

“You won’t be able to do it the next day,” McGowan said.


Foley & McGowan’s Funeral Home in Sligo is just one of several homes David McGowan operates. Susan Cox also helps operate this funeral home in the area.

Time is a huge factor in the funeral business itself, McGowan said during a recent visit to County Sligo where he runs and manages one of several funeral homes.

Sligo is a more traditional area in many ways, McGowan said, and the Irish wake is especially alive there.

An Irish funeral, end-of-life ceremony or wake doesn’t start with the priest anymore. It starts with the funeral director — and the body.

An Irish wake is a time to keep vigil, McGowan said. The body arrives at the home after being embalmed and, unless there is a privacy notice, anyone can come to the wake. The body remains there until it is taken to the church for the “removal” or to the cemetery immediately after.

“A wake is to keep vigil, to keep a presence,” McGowan said.

And, while in urban centers like Dublin the wake is sometimes replaced by a viewing at the funeral home, the wake is still popular in places like Sligo.

Neighbors come and bring food, clocks are stopped at the time of death, mirrors are covered and, depending on the faith of the person or lack thereof, there might be the Rosary or other prayers said over the body. In some rarer cases, horse-drawn hearses are even used, McGowan said.

But no matter what, the body is of paramount importance for the family, McGowan said.

David McGowan, left, and Susan Cox, right, both work and operate Foley & McGowan Funeral home in Sligo town in the more rural western part of Ireland.

His phone is rarely silent throughout the day, with incessant calls and texts with funeral and embalming requests.

Often the first question families ask is along the same lines:
“When can we get the body back?”
“When can we take her home?”

And the answer to that question, at least for McGowan, is always, “Tonight.”

The emphasis, McGowan said, is always on the body in Irish funeral and wake arrangements. The body needs to be back at the house for the wake the same day if possible to maximize the hours spent together before the arrival at church.

Again, according to that Irish Hospice Foundation survey from 2014, a majority of Irish people, 74 percent, want to be cared for in their own homes before death.
At his funeral business in County Sligo, McGowan takes the dignity of the dead seriously.

“Someone’s mother and father is inside that door and more than likely be half naked,” McGowan said. “It’s not a spectator sport.”

Such is the desire for families to keep their dead loved one close that a few years back, when McGowan had fewer embalming facilities, he embalmed a few bodies at home. In one case, through the wall, about 60 people were laughing and talking about the deceased, he recalled.

Getting the body home quickly gives families time they don’t normally get during more urban funerals in Dublin or other major cities, he said.

But time isn’t the only factor. The nature of funerals is changing, and the clerical sex abuse crisis has made its mark, too.
When the husband of one devout Catholic woman died a few years ago, McGowan asked if he would be spending the night in the nearby Catholic church as part of the burial traditions.

The woman told him she didn’t want her husband’s body in the same building as the priests she associated with the sex abuse scandal which rocked the Catholic Church in Ireland.

“Now, I feel sorry for those people now, those elderly people in their 80s and 90s who are so religious and give all their lives to prayer,” McGowan said. “They are now reading about those people being pedophiles and abusing children. They must feel seriously let down.”

Gone are the days when funerals began with a call or visit to the parish priest, who largely decided the day, time and other arrangements, Fanagan said.

“The Catholic Church lost its influence over families when it comes to funerals in Ireland,” Fanagan said. “A bit of a revolution has occurred.”

Funeral directors are in a more direct relationship with their clients. Many people Fanagan works with classify themselves as spiritual but not religious.

Funerals can feature a humanist minister or civil celebrant, secular poetry and non-traditional songs. There’s more compromise and personalization in many ways.

“Families are now saying, ‘This is what we want,’” Fanagan said.

But McGowan still worries that urban funerals, which are changing faster than they are in more traditional and rural areas like County Sligo, are depriving people of time to grieve at home as a majority would prefer, according to the 2014 hospice survey.

“I don’t think people get that time in the funeral home,” McGowan explained. “You need to be seeing the body. It’s very therapeutic for a grieving family to be able to spend some time.”

He will often tell family they should go off into the side room where the body might be kept at the home and spend some time with the body. Some ask questions. Some shout. Some cry. McGowan has heard it all.

For David McGowan funeral directing isn’t about the money, it’s about advocating for the dead and protecting their dignity.

“Why did you die?”
“You picked a fine time to leave us.”
“Why did you have to go?”

“Why not me?”

McGowan said he’s experienced countless mourners approach him months later and ask him how he knew they needed that extra time.

Those moments of service and commitment are what McGowan said he lives for. It’s not about the money, he said, it’s about advocating for the dead and helping the living.

“There’s no point in being the richest person in the graveyard,” McGowan said.


While funeral directors like McGowan and Fanagan play a more dominant role than they once did, there is still a useful place for the Catholic Church, Rev. Seamus Ahearne said, especially because its way of crafting a language of death around each and every funeral.

Ahearne, an Augustinian priest, celebrates around 70 funerals a year. Each one is special and requires its own special language, he said.

Often the people who come to him rarely attend Mass. They’re disconnected from church, but they want to go to the funeral.
To make those disconnected and lost people comfortable, Ahearne ensures each person has a role.

“We try to come on their terms, not ours,” he said.

People in his community often seem lost, Ahearne said, so he crafts a shared language for each family, building on the traditions outlined by the Church over six or seven meetings.

The night before the funeral, Ahearne and Liz Lawler, a nun stationed at Rivermount Parish, go to the home for an evening of prayer.

Rev. Seamus Ahearne, left and Sr. Liz Lawler, right are both part of a Catholic parish team which goes to homes and tries to help families process grief.

Lawler, a 74-year-old religious sister, described such visits as “privileged moments” in a process of saying goodbye that should be gentle, easy, organic and most importantly for Ahearne, with whom she works in a team, comfortable.

“Death is something beyond all of us,” he said.

With increasing secularization in Ireland, the Church has become less of a focal point, but the small “c” church still provides a physical and emotional space for people to grieve.

Lawler recalled one funeral and service which particularly affected her. A young woman died in her 20s, having lived all her life with her parents. She was disabled and unable to walk or speak.

When she died, her family had the funeral hearse carrying her body pull up to the school she attended amid the pouring rain, Lawler said.

And standing outside in that rain was every student, nurse and staff member of the school. The parents went up to each person, shook their hand and thanked them.

This was the community’s way of attempting to not only deal with the death, Lawler said, but also to highlight the efforts and love of family.

Ahearne compared his work to that of a sculptor or a painter who is trying to help the people he calls “God’s work of art.”

He said he takes his own memories of grief and loss and uses them to understand the family. He said his ministry of preparing people for funerals helps “drag the depths” out of people, bringing all the emotion, grief, pain and even joy to the surface.

However, he was careful to explain he never places himself at the center of things.

“You cannot emote,” Ahearne said. “You cannot dare intrude with your own rubbish.”


The increased secularization of Ireland has also altered the way wakes and funerals are conducted.

In larger cities like Dublin, families get more choice. They don’t have to choose a priest. If they want a humanist celebrant, they can have one. The same goes for cremations, which even the Vatican declared permissible — if not preferred — in 1963. However, in more rural and historically poorer Sligo, McGowan said, 60 percent of the funerals and whe performs are still at the Catholic cathedral.

He and Ahearne agreed that even for older people who don’t particularly like the church,  it’s what they are familiar with and it provides a comfortable outline and rubric to follow.

Ray Cashman, a professor of folklore and anthropology at Indiana University, expanded on that notion of communal spaces. A Catholic republican living on the Irish border, he said, is probably not going to mess with his Protestant unionist neighbor. They live and work next door to each other and in rural Ireland that counts for a lot, Cashman said.

Funerals, wakes and graveyards occupy a special place in the midst of the Irish landscape, both physically and emotionally. The moment someone dies, unless a family announces a need for privacy, the entire community storms up to their door to remember the person, McGowan said.

In rural areas around Sligo, neighbors often dig the grave, carry the casket and cook the food throughout the process of wake, removal and burial, McGowan said.

Those people are called the meitheal, McGowan said. The meitheal, according to McGowan, is the group of close friends, the community that springs up to help take care of each other in times of need.

It’s a leftover in some ways, McGowan said, from the time of the famine when thousands of Irish left the country and those who stayed needed to band together to survive and feed their families. And while the famine is over and the Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement, the meitheal is still very much present when a death occurs in smaller communities.

The meitheal springs up around people like Matthew Martin who died Jan. 15, 2018, aged 82. Martin was a part of the meitheal at Ahearne’s parish in Dublin. Not a regular mass-goer himself, he attended every funeral, Ahearne said. He always seemed to make the time.

“He seemed to know everyone and was well known to everyone,” Ahearne said in his eulogy. “I think he was a specialist in funerals. He seemed to always arrive for them.”

Death is mysterious, and it’s up to people like McGowan and Ahearne to try and make sense of it or to at least provide a time and a space for families to grieve, especially in the midst of the changing pace of life, new technology and increased secularization.

“It’s a right powerful moment and we have to respect that there’s something deep going on for all of us,” Ahearne said.

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