FR KEVIN HEGARTY
An old man once told me that to die is as natural as to live. According to psychiatrist, Anthony Clare, we are losing sight of this wisdom. From the moment death threatens, the response of society is to hide it away in hospitals or hospices, anywhere other than in front of our eyes.
Death in the city, he has written, means ‘a hurried trip to the undertaker, a pallid funeral, a hearse followed by a black limousine carrying the few relatives who have bothered to turn up, musak in the crematorium, tea and sandwiches in the parlour, then back with a hint of desperation to the business of living’.
In the west of Ireland, we still hold, thankfully, to the old, unhurried rituals of death. In the parish of Kilmore–Erris, where I work, wakes continue to be celebrated. As night falls, neighbours gather into the wake house, express the usual words of sympathy and sit in solidarity until morning with the bereaved family. The initial silence in the face of death gives way to conversation as the personality of the deceased is seamlessly evoked in the shared stories of her/his life. There are tears, inevitably, but also some gentle laughter as funny stories and foibles are recalled. The person, lying in the stillness of death along the wall of the sitting room, comes alive in spirit as the anecdotes accumulate.
In this gathering at the wake house there is recognition of the contribution of the deceased to the community. It also provides a doorway into the rich mystery of the resurrection.
As long as we can remember our loved ones, they never really die.
The church invites us to reflect, in November, on the reality of death. It also recommends that we visit a cemetery to pray for the deceased during the first week of the month. Sometimes you read a sentence and it sticks in your mind like a limpet on a rock. William Dalrymple explores the human archaeology of Eastern Christianity in his wonderful book, “From the Holy Mountain”. Among many splendid things, he tells of a visit to a declining monastery at Mar Gabriel, where one of the monks brings him on a tour during which, they stop at the mortuary. “Here”, the monk murmurs”, lie the bones of seventeen thousand saints”.
I think of that story every time I visit Tarmoncarragh, a graveyard on the edge of the Mullet Peninsula, where I live. The graveyard looks out on Eagle Island whose light house protects sailors from dangers lurking in the treacherous waters. The light, for me, is a symbol of a richer radiance – the light of Christ casting a saving glow on the generations buried in this sacred place. Scattered around is the evidence of centuries of death, laid out in an ungainly array; the modern, custom built headstones sleek in their newness; the rough hewn Celtic crosses of poorer days; and most poignantly, the lichen encrusted, anonymous stones of the time when the community hovered between survival and starvation.
There is no one famous buried in Tarmoncarragh. They made no headlines in the history of the world. Yet standing there, especially in November twilight, I always sense the prevailing resonance of meaningful lives.
The church recommendation that we visit a cemetery fuses well with the celebration on November 1 of the Feast Of All Saints. Our cemeteries are filled with people who are in this company. They are the people- relatives, friends and neighbours-who lived the values of the Beatitudes. To be gentle, to mourn, to hunger for justice for the oppressed, to be merciful, to be pure in heart and a peacemaker are the signs of the Kingdom Of God in our lives. They did the ordinary things extraordinarily well. They did not see themselves as potential saints but we recognise they were tilted in that direction.
Seán ó Riordáin, in a poem on his mother’s burial, images her” as the hand that did the writing, a hand that dispensed kindness like an old bible, a hand that was like balsam and you ill”. Many of the people we remember; this week, shaped our lives by their love for us. We are what we are because of them.