The Life We Lead

Jimmy Duff from Iveagh Crescent was buried in the City Cemetery last week after a long and painful illness. Any death is difficult for a family to bear, though none more so than the death of a young person. But Jimmy lived to a fair, old age and though there were tears at his graveside, there was also great relief that his suffering was at an end.

Afterwards in the Pigeon Club there was, appropriately, something of a happy celebration of the man’s life. Friends condoled relatives and relatives each other, not with recollections of the man’s flaws or a biography of the type of disappointments and thwarted hopes each mortal experiences on this earth, but a flood of fond memories, funny anecdotes, Jimmy’s coups in life, and the singing of particular and meaningful songs. In this way do we positively immortalise our dead loved ones.

I remember the first dead person I saw. When I was a kid in Corby Way my Uncle Hugh Downey from Andersonstown Crescent died. My mate, Seamy Lavery, begged me to take him to the wake. “Please, I’ve never seen a dead Mister before,” he said. Looking at the old man in his grey suit in the open coffin was not as frightening as we thought it would be. In fact, it was a bit disappointing.  I wasn’t familiar enough with him to feel a sense of loss and I was too young to empathise with my Aunt May, though I probably put on an act.

I also remember the first coffin I ever carried. It was a very proud act. I was eighteen. John McCarthy from Raglan Street was a pensioner who myself and a friend, Paul Kerr, used to visit every Tuesday or Wednesday night as part of our Legion of Mary duty. He had been a republican sympathiser after 1916 and told us how a mob of ‘Wee Joe’ Devlin supporters (oh yes, those old, peaceful constitutional nationalists!) surrounded his house and smashed the windows because he was displaying a poster of De Valera who was at that time running for election in the North.

We came out of St Peter’s Pro-Cathedral (though I can’t remember if it was a Pro-Cathedral in 1971. What is a ‘Pro-Cathedral’?), onto the Falls Road, and I was asked if I would like to carry the coffin. So I bore the lightness of the old man, and I know it sounds stupid but that was the first time I noticed people along the footpaths stop and bless themselves and men take off their caps. And I thought, what a great tradition we have!

Later, I realised that this was happening even when it was a Protestant funeral going to the City Cemetery (you could tell it was Protestant, from the stricken faces). Locals stopped, bowed their heads in silence, weren’t sure whether to bless themselves in case they caused offence, and waited until the hearse and funeral cars had passed.

Unlike many other peoples we have an attitude of being close to the dead which distinguishes us and which isn’t, I believe, morbid but is in fact healthy. We get angry if our cemeteries are neglected by the authorities. We make an attempt to get to wakes, or the Requiem Mass or Service, or the interment (sometimes even when we don’t know the deceased). We issue memory cards and continue to publish memorial notices in newspapers for decades after a person’s death. We pray for the dead and to the dead.

But times change. So does respect. Used to be that smokers would leave the cortege and go to the footpath if they were dying for a fag. Not anymore. Used to be that mourners would whisper and observe some solemnity. Even that respect is slipping. Used to be that everyone at the graveside – even the apostates – would join in the prayers to comfort the family. Now you hear the football results.

I know that in some circumstances it is unavoidable (perhaps the family home has been sold), but increasingly relatives are following the practice in England, which is now normal in Dublin, of not having wakes, of the remains going to a chapel of rest where you can call in between nine and five, if you’re not too busy. In these modern times there is a trend of pushing the dead away, not having time for the dead and forgetting too quickly how profound was the individual’s story – when all lives, even the most unassuming, have volumes to them.

Last year some stupid Catholic clerics criticised the most recent and touching additions to Requiem Mass – those personalised readings from the pulpit by relatives and friends consisting of goodbyes, little letters and poems. At the funeral of my cousin, Raymond White, twelve months ago, listening to these humble tributes I felt for the first time in years that I was in a church of the people.

The wealthy, the royal, the powerful and the celebrated have their ostentatious displays, their heralds, substituting a magnitude of riches and a plangency of trumpets, for the real and common story, that is the struggle for meaning in life that each individual engages in. There is an interesting story told by the German writer, Goethe, about his neighbour, Von Ochsenstein, a patrician who had not led a particularly remarkable life.

In those days the custom was for pompous funerals which often crippled poorly provided families. Von Ochenstein left behind directions that common working men should carry him to the grave, early in the morning, in perfect silence, and without an attendant or follower. Though a bit extreme, he made his point, about death being an equaliser, a leveller. Death is that unknown region to which and through which we travel without wealth or favour, our only passport the productive use to which spiritually or publicly we put the life we were given.