The rest of the world can learn from Irish funerals


IRELAND – I encountered a young Irishwoman not long ago, who talked to me about having spent some time working in


It was very rewarding and fulfilling, and she was glad to get away from Ireland, where, she felt, there were still some puritanical and inhibited attitudes to sexuality. In Germany, by contrast, she found people were much more open and natural in their attitudes to relationships and she thought that much better.

But then, her father died: and she was disappointed by how stilted and tight-lipped her German friends were about death. They couldn’t talk about it. Sometimes they couldn’t even express their condolences and feelings. When she returned to Ireland for the funeral, she felt so grateful for the Irish attitude to death – so graceful, so natural, so open.

And this isn’t a unique experience: I’ve known many other Irish people across the diaspora who have said this – that when they came home for a funeral, or to attend to a dying relative, they hugely appreciated the Irish approach to death, including the practice of the “open coffin”, which is an old Irish custom which has had quite a revival. Two of my oldest friends, June Levine and Mary Holland, were both waked in their Dublin homes with an “open coffin”, and the dear departed lying in it, while we visited, paid our respects, talked and took refreshments.

This, I think, would be regarded with horror in England – except among certain ethnic minorities who have funeral rituals that do not conform to the norm. The English also avoid confronting death by keeping it private and formal: in England, you don’t attend a funeral unless invited. “Oh, I didn’t go to her funeral because I wasn’t invited.” As though it were a cocktail reception.

But a death is a public event in that it’s on the public record, and the public nature of a funeral should be part of an open society, not only so that individuals can be mourned as part of the community, but to ensure that foul play is not in question (or the worst nightmare of all – being mistakenly buried alive: it has happened).

So I’m a great champion of the Irish way of death, which I regard as comforting and civilised; and I’m somewhat surprised by a recent survey which found that people in Ireland today feel that attitudes to death aren’t honest and open enough. An increasing number of people – now at 57pc, previously at 51pc – say we don’t discuss death and dying candidly. We should talk about it more. We should talk about how we want to die – we don’t want to die alone (which makes Hold My Hand, I’m Dying a great title) and we’d really like to die at home, surrounded by those we love.

Maybe when people become more sexually liberated, they become correspondingly more inhibited about discussing death?

One of the biggest changes over the period of the last, say, 60 years, is that many people do not actually witness a death until they are well into adulthood: maybe not until their 40s. When life expectancy was shorter, even children were introduced to death at an early age. But as life expectancy increased – for which we are all glad, especially those of us who are edging nearer to the departure lounge – it also became, like everything else, more medicalised, and dying people were whisked away to the curtained corner of a hospital ward.

I was once in a London hospital ward – with a bout of pneumonia – when a patient died. A conjuring trick was performed with nurses and medics quickly drawing curtains, and with amazing speed and efficiency they somehow magicked the body out of the ward and into the morgue. As though death were, somehow, obscene.

The death survey which disclosed how we would like to die was all fine and dandy, and why shouldn’t we specify just how we would like to leave this world? We’re given “choice” in everything else now, so why not “choice” in death? Oh grand. But I’m not that confident that such wishes can always be realised. I still think that line from the New Testament is true and wise: “You know not the day nor the hour”.

You can plan as much as you like (and yes, plan your funeral, otherwise your heirs and successors will be furious to be lumbered with the cost), but you don’t know from one day to the next what might occur. I have too much experience of losing friends and family to death to take any other view: what happens, happens. Life takes us by surprise, and so, sometimes does death. A tremor in the hand heralds the onset of MS, an annoying back pain turns out to be spinal cancer, or a sepsis occurs during a wisdom tooth extraction – all cases I have known – and our “choices” are neither here nor there.

People have prayed for a happy death for aeons, so there’s nothing new in hoping to have an easy passage, or even, probably, speeding up the final curtain. But I think it’s tempting fate to announce that you are going to control the ending of your life. The wisest utterance that any politician ever made was Harold Macmillan’s explanation of how big changes occur to human experience: “Events, dear boy, events”. It’s what we don’t plan that socks us in the jaw.

We all hope to leave the stage gracefully, and like my young friend who worked abroad, “bas in Éireann” is, surely, a blessing to be wished, though it cannot always be chosen. November, month of memorials, is the time to reflect on it all.


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