A few weeks ago, Michael Clarke, a funeral director and embalmer, drove me halfway around Northwest Ireland to give me a look into the funeral business. The keystone of our trip was the Death Care Academy (DCA), where he is an instructor and advocate. As one might intuit, the DCA isn’t a standard educational institution. The entrance-way has a collection of hearses from throughout the years. Upstairs is a model of a traditional Irish home, set up for a wake, with its wall cut away to show the thatching. The centerpiece is a white-walled room, with what almost looks like an operating table in the center, if one ignores the nearby freezers and the fact the table looks horrendously uncomfortable. Luckily, the people who lay on it don’t mind.
The DCA offers courses in embalming, with a separate course in restorative art and cosmetics, funeral professional psychology, and the safe handling of chemicals, among others. There are also resources for those looking to use funeral services, and a gathering space for conferences on industry regulation and best practices. It’s the first organization of its kind in Ireland, founded by David McGowen. David was trained in Chicago. After returning to Ireland and making a name for himself as an undertaker, he was concerned about the lack of domestic training and the low-quality work performed in the absence of serious regulation. The embalming room, with its surgical styling and modern implements, is an indicator for what embalming should become, rather than a cheap white slab in the back room. Speaking with David, I heard the tones of a man with a fundamental purpose, who believed in the power of his work to improve the human condition.
The politics, science, and ethics around funeral homes are incredibly complex. Over that day where funeral director and embalmer Michael Clarke led me around, he explained a whole hidden world, covering governmental regulation (domestic and international), British imperialism, the rural and urban divide, modern developments in chemistry, and professional stigma. By the end of the day, the thing that really grabbed me was a recurring theme, the reason why the work was important, encapsulated in something David said: “The last time the family saw them, they probably weren’t looking their best.” For David, the funeral director and embalmer’s work after a death is similar to that of a psychologist: helping the family with their bereavement. The embalmer turns back the clock, removing the ravages of disease. This in turn aids the funeral director who, through the churchlike architecture of the funeral home and the symbolism of the funeral, offers the family a space to reminisce and say goodbye. The process reminds families of the deceased’s life before their illness. It allows them to grieve.
It’s not all that different from the American understanding of funerals, but the differences appear when considering the Irish tradition of the wake. Originally, the wake was a raucous party for the whole village, a community send off for the diseased, with drinking and music and drinking and dancing and drinking and stories. In contrast to the American funeral, which is often considered a private affair for close friends and family, the wake was a community event, a public affair. Being present and supporting the family was a way of recognizing the loss of a member of the community, but also celebrating a life lived. While this classical version has faded, funerals and visitations still bring together a much larger community than the states. Geralyn Hynes, the nurse/logotherapist I spoke with months ago, was spending her weekend at a college friend’s grandmother’s funeral. I asked if she knew the woman: “no, but you have to go.” MP’s are obligated to go to funerals in their districts, regardless of their relationship to the deceased.
I spoke with Eddie Lenihan, a folklorist and storyteller, about this tradition. He described it as an element of the social fabric. Everyone from the village was obligated to show up. Failing to do so would be seen as a snub, potentially the source of a feud. It was important to be there, to show your support for the family. This is still somewhat true. When I spoke with a woman about her mother’s funeral on Diamond Peak in Connemara, she told me over 1500 people visited, but afterward, the family sat around and thought “where was Jim? Why didn’t he make it?”
This all fits in with David’s vision. The fusion of the body, the community, and the ritual allows for a process of healing. But I’m left to ask,where is the deceased in all of this? Isn’t the funeral about them?
I talked about death with a woman on a sunny morning in a cafe in Belfast, while her two young children, two and seven babbled and and played with their yogurt. She said: “I think we live on, in something we did, or our children. I don’t want an afterlife. I want to do my bit here, and then I’m done.” I love her way of describing it. It’s not that we are reflected in what we leave behind, it’s that we live through those things.
Consider this poem by Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel Prize winning poet, titled “The Strand”:
The dotted line my father’s ashplant made
On Sandymount Strand
Is something else the tide won’t wash away
Heaney has been a critical interviewee, even though we’ve never spoken and he’s been dead for three years. Of course “The dotted line” will be washed away, much as everything else about the speaker’s father, but from the perspective of the speaker, the father’s presence is sustained inside of him. Heaney grasps the ways the contours of our lives are shaped by the dead, and how our memories of the deceased offer them a type of life. Here’s another poem, “Scrabble” written in memoriam of Tom Delaney, archaeologist:
Bare flags. Pump water. Winter-evening cold.
Our backs might never warm up but our faces
Burned from the hearth-blaze and the hot whiskeys.
It felt remembered even then, an old
Rightness half-imagined or foretold,
As green sticks hissed and spat into the ashes
And whatever rampaged out there couldn’t reach us,
Firelit, shuttered, slated and stone-walled
Year after year, our game of Scrabble: love
Taken for granted like any other word
That was chanced on and allowed within the rules.
So ‘scrabble’ let it be. Intransitive.
Meaning to scratch or rake at something hard.
Which is what he hears. Our scraping, clinking tools.
Tom Delaney is dead, but he is everywhere in this poem. I know nothing about the man, but I see him living in a work about his passing.
So how does all this connect to the wake? Eddie Lenihan said that the wake showed the deceased as remaining a part of society, continuing to live through the density of social connections. Why wouldn’t you go to your college friend’s grandmother’s funeral? Her life has had an indelible impact on your own, even if you didn’t know her. Why start a family feud over failing to attend a wake? Well, it’s an implicit rejection of the deceased’s place in the social nexus, including the value of their progeny. Why embalm a body, when it’s only delaying the inevitable? Because it reshapes your last memories of the person, transforming the shape and color of their continued life in your mind. In other words, the funeral or the wake is for the deceased. Our life is not our heartbeat, nor our breath. The constitution of our life is fundamentally social. In a fundamental way, we are other people.
This New York Times piece is a must read on the constitution of a life:
You have to read the whole thing though. And you should. It’s really good.
I finished A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson a couple weeks ago, recommended and given to me by a friend. It’s a stunning book, crisscrossing time from the 1920s to 2012, focusing on the psychic echoes of one character’s work as a RAF bomber pilot in WWII on the generations that followed. It reflects a lot of the things I’ve been thinking about, and expresses ideas far more fully and complexly than I have here. It makes a move at the end that I don’t want to spoil, but will make it clear why this post made me think about it. Worth a read.