A week ago, I was living through an experience unlike anything I have ever witnessed before. As mentioned in the last two posts, my father in law was nearing the end of his long life and last week, we lost him.
In the UK, when someone dies, it usually takes at least a week to organise a funeral and any after events. A memorial may take place at an even later date. In Ireland, particularly rural Ireland, things happen much more quickly. So if someone passes away on Thursday night, the funeral can be as soon as that next Sunday. Without dwelling on the practicalities, you can see that this is quite a feat of organisation in every aspect.
However, last weekend in rural County Mayo was an example of pure history at work. Living, functional traditions. Not traditions shown in a "working museum" but right there as part of twenty first century life.
We had always known that such funerals are speedily organised. My husband has, of course, attended a few over the years. Apart from the obvious affection shown for my father in law, what made the greatest impression on me, though, was the attention to detail and the way in which these details were ingrained into community life. Passed from generation to generation.
For example, as I was dashing from the airport to the house on the day of the wake, my husband called to say that he had an initial duty to perform. He and his brother had to take a bottle of whisky to the cemetery and have a drink with the grave diggers. By grave diggers, he did not mean council workers with a machine. It was the sons and grandsons of the village men who had grown up with his father. They did not offer this service as a favour, in fact until he was told to go and drink with them, my husband did not even know that they were doing it. It is simply accepted that a burial party will be formed and the work will be done. The grave is hand dug, using Irish turf spades.
Examples of such community tradition and spirit, interwoven with genuine kindness and sorrow, punctuated the entire proceedings. From deliveries of food from neighbours to the huge number of people who took time on a Saturday night to visit with the funeral parlour or the house, to press our hands and truly look the family in the eye and express their condolences. From the full village Sunday Mass being turned into a funeral mass to the many people at the gale stricken cemetery to, finally, the grave diggers again, closing the grave in front of us. It was streaming with rain, so windy that umbrellas were impossible but the oldest man in the parish was laid to rest in the spot which he had chosen and as he would have said "the thing was rested, so".
As a non Catholic, non Irish person who had never been to such an event before despite over twenty years of association with the family, it was quite a shock to the system. (Not least finding the coffin lid in our bedroom on the night of the wake, if I may inject a little humour...) It was, though, a cathartic process. By the time we were back at one of my father in law's favourite pubs after the cemetery, it felt as if we had done him proud. Those ancient funeral and burial rites are there for a reason - they work. Both practically and spiritually.
Now we begin the hard road of life without him. RIP.