Thursday, June 3, 2010

An Irish Funeral

A death in the family meant I had to cut short my convalescence (= copious amounts of tea and medicinal doses of chocolate biscuits) to fly back home to Ireland for the rollercoaster ride that is an Irish funeral. Thankfully, I was able to continue my medical treatment (more tea and even better biscuits), and I now feel right as rain again.

When you live in another country, especially when you’ve made a point of studying its language and culture, you simply presume you’ve become familiar with all aspects of life in your adopted home. But one thing no language and culture course prepares you for is death and funerals. How we send off our nearest and dearest is an integral part of our social behaviour, and at the same time, it’s something people would rather not talk about. And it’s not surprising: I don’t have a copy on hand, but I’m quite sure it wasn’t on Dale Carnegie’s list of recommended chit-chat topics in How to Make Friends and Influence People.

My experience in Germany has been that death is very intimate and low-key. The funerals I’ve attended have been immediate family only, and the ceremonies were quiet and tasteful. I almost committed a massive faux pas by inviting myself to a funeral ceremony, thinking – Irish-style – that it was the correct thing to do. I was gently informed that the funeral was for immediate family only, the subtext being that the presence of strangers – or, in my case, simply non-family members (I did know the deceased, honest, I wasn’t trying to gatecrash a complete stranger’s funeral) – was intrusive and inappropriate.

Funerals in Ireland, like many other Irish events, are basically a big clan gathering. And Irish families are very, very big. Not only are there (literally) dozens of cousins (in my case I have over sixty first cousins. Yes: six-oh. Five dozen plus small change) and aunts and uncles, but these relatives all have spouses and partners and off-spring of their own. An Irish funeral is only deemed a success and an appropriate send-off if it’s huge. Yes, in this case size really does matter. There’s no greater honour for the departed and the family left behind than an enormous funeral - hundreds of people in attendance. Many of the attendees don’t even know the dead person, but that’s okay: you attend the funeral of a friend, relative or colleague’s loved one to show your support for the person you know. And if the funeral cortege manages to stop traffic, if the local Gardai (the police force) have to be called out to direct cars... well, then, the funeral was a smashing success and the family can rest assured that justice was done to their loss.

Re-reading the above, I realise that it all sounds a bit mafioso-like: “Come and pay-a the respect-a to the Family!” but while there are a lot of men in black suits and dark cars, no rings are kissed, I promise. Instead, funerals are just part of life over here and they’re not hidden or sanitised or toned down. The funeral cortege leaves the local church after a funeral mass and the procession slowly makes its way to the cemetery, usually passing down one of the narrow main streets of the town. People stop and bless themselves when the funeral draws level, cars pull aside to let the hearse pass, and shopkeepers rush to turn off shop lights as a mark of respect. It’s solemn and respectful, and it’s wonderful and horrible. It doesn’t make death any easier or more pleasant, but it’s an ingrained ritual that everyone experiences or has experienced, and perhaps this collective empathy makes it easier to bear.

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