or The Curate s' Egg
A Strange Privilege
This week I celebrated a funeral for a woman who had died nearly three weeks previously. This seems to me an indecent delay, and must be so difficult for her family, but it was forced on them by the schedules of undertakers and cemeteries. Since travelling to Dublin to bury my Great Aunt May last week I have been dweffing on the contrast between the Irish approach to death and our own.
Here there is more and more denial surrounding death. It almost always happens in a hospital. ha priest is called, it is usually when the person is unconscious. I have never yet administered Viaticum which is the real sacrament of the dying. After death a process takes over in which the family's responsibility seems to be to turn up on the day of the funeral, a week or ten days later. They live in a kind of inertia of grief until then. Here death is an immensely private affair. In Dublin my aunt's death and the funeral arrangements had been announced in the papers and on posters in the town by the time we arrived.
When we reached the nursing
home where she had lived and died, we were greeted warmly and naturally by the staff. There was none of the embarrassment you might find which stems from a desire to say something appropriate without directly referring to the awful facts. I have sat through interviews here with undertakers where they tied themselves into semantic knots rather than use the words dead, died, or body, as if these were somehow obscene. "May's in the mortuary by the chapel; she looks lovely, you'll want to see her." It was the most natural of welcomes because something most natural had happened.
Death was not to be denied or embroidered, for it was the truth, and as result, seemed less fearful. Human beings are made to deal in truth; distort or deny it and that's when trauma starts. This is why there is a pathological fear of death in our society because we have pushed it far from everyday life where it belongs, to slaver over it in hospital dramas and violent films.
She did indeed look beautiful, deeply serene, lying as if asleep, but then she was only dead a couple of days. We prayed over her body and blessed it with holy water. Maureen, her friend and co-worker of many years, came to sit with her for the afternoon. The vigil began with the body being placed in the coffin just moments before it was to be moved into church. I was able to bless a body and not just the outside of a box as we took it into the chapel to lie before the Blessed Sacrament. Here sadly fewer and fewer Catholics ask for the body to be received into church the night before.
The undertaker was at ease with us; he exuded the sense that in common humanity he was sympathetic, rather than the slightly theatrical obsequiousness one is used to here. There was less of the majordomo and more of the attendant about him. He was there to attend to practical things, not dignify the mourning, which had a dignity of its own, natural and free, not formal and reserved.
He was neatly and formally dressed, but I noticed the callouses and nicks on his hands where he had been at work at a carpenter's bench. It was the old-fashioned type of firm; they were builders and joiners, but also did the local undertaking. They were occupied with the way people lived, used to interacting with people in a variety of situations and not trapped in the role of those who only deal with death.
In England undertaking has become dominated by big business. Most funeral directors in this country are now owned by large conglomerates. You notice the difference.
I wore white for the funeral for the first time by choice. This was for three reasons. Firstly because the purple chasuble looked like it was a cast-off from Flash Gordon. Secondly, because it was Eastertide. Thirdly because I have never been more full of a sense of hope in the resurrection. The latter is the most subjective and therefore least good pastoral reason, since I cannot presume to know who is in Heaven.
How could I then, in all charity, wear anything other than white for anyone else without implicitly commenting on their worthiness? I happen to think that psychologically speaking, white is rarely the right colour for a funeral. It may have grown in popularity precisely because of the culture of denial about which I have spoken.
The parish priest came to the reception of the body and the funeral Mass, a strong and gentle presence I was glad to have. I reflected, as we returned from the huge cemetery of Deans Grange, that this was the first of many funerals I would celebrate for members of my family. A strange privilege.