Requiem for a Funeral

There is no greater love for the people of Ireland than the love they hold in their hearts for a funeral. 

The Irish preoccupation with funerals may seem morbid or ghoulish to people outside the island but personally I think the Irish are the true masters of remembering the dead.  Not at lot of people know that the phrase, ‘the luck of the Irish’ was originally sarcastic, probably invented by an Englishman, as Irish history could literally not be filled with more misfortune. Between the potato famine, the Titanic, and the Troubles no one could ever accuse the Irish of dancing their way through the history books. But the Irish managed to turn the phrase on its head (arguably to sell shamrock tat to Americans); and using the same negative-to-positive mentality we have done the same for our funerals.  

If you ever meet an Irish person and conversation is starting to run dry, ask them for their best funeral story. I guarantee they will have one. My sister once used a funeral to shame everyone who turned up despite not actually caring when the person was alive by playing ‘Don’t Act Like You Know Me’ before delivering the eulogy. My granda’s is pretty hard to beat (his funeral story, not his funeral – he’s not dead). He was once at a funeral where they put benches around the grave for the old women to have a rest after climbing the cemetery hill. Unfortunately, it had been raining heavily that night and as the minister spoke the bench started to slide, depositing the old women into the open grave. None of them were hurt but my granda said at their age it would have saved everyone a lot of time just to leave them there. 

There are certain customs around funerals that only seem to happen in Ireland. The wake, for example. If you have never been to a wake it is almost impossible to describe without sounding like you’ve become unhinged from reality. Imagine one of those landmark birthday parties like a 50th where everyone from your family is there and all the extended friends, neighbours and co-workers have pulled an invite too. You don’t recognise all the people there but it’s clear everyone’s having a good time and there’s probably someone crying in a corner. However, instead of the birthday boy getting a cake, they get a coffin and even if there is cake, they can’t eat it, because they’re dead. Anthropologists are as yet to explain how Irish culture managed to evolve to a point where our death rituals involve a bunch of old ladies eating chicken sandwiches while ignoring a coffin behind them. 

I remember my first wake. I was ten and my great granda had died in his eighties. My distinct memory of it was being stuck in a kitchen with my brother while a man who wasn’t even remotely related to me was insisting that we call him Uncle Roy and asking us did we like harmonicas. My dad tells him that we love harmonicas (we didn’t) and then promptly abandoned us while we had to listen to Roy’s harmonica solos for an hour. Still to this day I am almost guaranteed to see Roy at a family funeral and he never disappoints. My personal highlight was him bringing out a can of beer at my great grandmother’s graveside which even in Ireland is considered a faux pas. 

 One night sitting round the dinner table in Inverness, some friends and I were discussing the songs we want played at our funeral. Up to that point I had always assumed this was a normal topic of conversation for the dinner table. Ever since I can remember my mum has made it very clear that we are carrying her coffin into the church to, ‘Bittersweet Sympathy’ by the Verve. ‘I like that’, she says, ‘It’s a good one to get the funeral started. People won’t expect it, it’s a real two fingers up to life’. She can just picture it: everyone sitting there in black and the violins start. ‘This is just like Michelle’, people will say, ‘she never did what anyone expected her to’. ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ is six minutes long, by the way, so I’m assuming she wants us to just keep circling the congregation like it’s a really sad game of musical chairs.   

The plan for years was to leave the church to ‘I Will Always Love You’. This is to be the Dolly Parton version. She has nothing against Whitney Houston but she feels like Dolly is a wee bit more understated and won’t draw as much focus from our mourning. A couple of years ago she decided that she actually wanted to leave the church to ‘Feeling Good’ by Nina Simone and as a result ‘I Will Always Love You’ has been demoted to a mid-ceremony backing track for a photo montage of her life. She still feels the need to remind us anytime it’s played that one day we will hear this and she’ll be dead… which over the years has really taken a lot of the enjoyment out of the song. Thematically she felt ‘Feeling Good’ worked better with her vision for the funeral. She’s impressed on us all at the start of the funeral that she was aware that life is hard, but she wants to end on a positive note that she is feeling good even if we all aren’t. 

After explaining this to my friends, they made it very clear that a psychologist would have a field day with this. Maybe in Scotland!? but in Ireland he would probably be delighted with the story as it would open the conversation up for him to tell me what he was planning to have at his funeral. Personally, I want ABBA ‘When All Is Said and Done.’ At this point my friend Keara asked, ‘could we not talk about the songs we want at our weddings instead’. No offence Keara, but there’s no guarantee you’re getting married but there’s pretty good odds you’re getting a funeral.

As a medical student we had to spend a day at the funeral home for some reason. Everyone else in the group was raging and I had been warned by my flatmates to try and not get too upset by the stark reminder of my own mortality. As an Irishman it was like getting to go to Disneyland. Did you know that even in the Highlands of Scotland, Irish families still have a wake?  Do you know you that you can get a patterned coffin? And that you can get a horse and cart to come and carry said patterned coffin? 

Before we left the funeral parlour I had one more question: ‘what would happen if an Irishman died in Scotland? How would they get the body home?’. The funeral director (who I later saw kissing the hospice doctor against a parked car in the hospital, but that’s another story) told me that first they would have to have a funeral director in Scotland and they would arrange the details with a funeral home back in Ireland. They would then bring the body in a private ambulance down to the ferry and before anyone had boarded the coffin would be brought onto the ship. When the ferry reaches its final port all the cars and passengers are unloaded before the coffin is moved. As the pallbearers take the coffin through the ship everything stops. The men who work on the ship stand still while the body in the coffin arrives on the soil it started out from. She told us the men say it is an honour to be part of that person’s last journey home. 

The Irish tend to be buried within three days and all three of those days are filled with people coming to the bereaved’s house and celebrating the life that came before the last goodbye. And when my turn comes, I can only hope that my grave will be filled with a patterned coffin, or failing that, a bench full of old ladies who should have really known better than to trust an open grave in Irish weather.A