WHATEVER HAS been lost in Irish culture, the tradition of funeral going has not died. Attending funerals remains an integral part of cultural life.
Funeral going is psychologically complex. It is comforting to those who mourn; recognition of the life of those who have died; and a celebration of their existence. It allows lament for their departure and acknowledgment of the loss for those who loved them.
Funeral attendance is a statement of connection, care, compassion and support. It encircles those who grieve and enriches those who attend because it connects each person there to the profundity of living and the inevitability of death. Funeral attendees witness the raw emotions of grief and the extraordinary capacity of the human spirit to love.
Traditional Irish funerals have their own tone, history and vocabulary well documented in Irish literature, verse, story and song. They have their past and present rituals. They are comforting in their predictability.
At funerals there is consciousness of the pre-mortem vigil that will have occurred if the death was lingering or the shock for mourners if it was not. There is post-mortem display of the remains, requiring sensitivity about who should attend at that stage. There is the funeral itself drawing together people who may be disconnected from each other but connected to the event.
In the front pew the mourners are aligned, ranked by relationship to the deceased and by their shared memories of a collective past. There is the shuffling of attendees toward them, murmurs of sorrow for their troubles, of deep condolences, of handshakes and hugs, the squeezing of arms and promises of post-funeral support.
There is consciousness in that line of sympathisers of the ineptitude and ineffectiveness of words. There is tongue-tied compassion, frustrated by an inability to say something of comfort or understanding about what cannot be understood. This is because however formulaic funeral rituals may be, each grief, as each life, is unique.
While the three-day “wake” may be no more, there is hospitality that must be given, and offering sustenance to those who have travelled a distance continues to this day. While the lament or caoineadh may not be expressed in keening or song, the beauty of lament is still understood.
The funeral is the place where the details of the death are recounted, where memories are revived and connections made. As clusters of people gather together before or after proceedings there is an emotional edge that makes laughter louder and sorrow deeper, and the alternation of these emotions stark in the short spaces between them.
Each time we attend a funeral we confront our own mortality. If we have not yet experienced personal loss we are made aware of the emotions and rituals that surround it and the sacredness of sorrow. If the territory of death is familiar to us then resonances are evoked and we have the chance to revisit our own remembrance of others who have died.
The extent of funeral attendance in Ireland often bemuses our neighbours in England, when whole businesses close for a day as a mark of respect, when offices are abandoned to attend mortuaries and removals, and when all-day journeys are undertaken to be at the funeral of someone whom one may not have known, as a mark of respect for the bereaved.
But there is psychological reason, social solidarity and cultural cohesion in funeral attendance, and even as the ceremonies, the belief systems they operate from or the expression of grief may change, the meaning of marking death remains, and long may we travel highway and byway to do so.