Radio: One foot in the grave, the other foot in their mouths

Undertakers could teach Pat Kenny and Ray D’Arcy a thing or two about tact and discretion

A solemn undertaking: discretion is second nature to funeral directors. Photograph: Getty

A solemn undertaking: discretion is second nature to funeral directors. Photograph: Getty

Sat, Apr 5, 2014, 01:00

Although it sounds like the name of some doomy goth band, the Death Care Academy is just what it says: an educational centre that provides training in funeral services. Based in Ballina, Co Mayo, the academy’s courses don’t spring to mind when it comes to coveted places in the annual CAO points scramble. Which is strange when you think of it, because if ever there was a job with a guaranteed supply of work, it is undertaking.

The niche facility features in Documentary on One: A Solemn Undertaking (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), which is appropriate, as both aim to lift the slightly forbidding veil that surrounds the funeral business. For David McGowan of the academy this is a straightforward task of dispelling the myth that only males born into families of undertakers enter the profession, by teaching others the craft of preparing bodies for their final journey. Leeanne O’Donnell, the producer and narrator, faces a trickier job, that of trying to elicit candid revelations from the funeral directors, to whom discretion is second nature.

It is a problem that O’Donnell encounters early on. When she first speaks to Martin and Bill Fitz-Gerald, a father and son who run a funeral home in Macroom, Co Cork, it is “like interviewing a pair of secret agents”; an instance when Bill warily asks whether a tape recorder is on or off sets the tone. This taciturn instinct results in a programme that often tells rather than shows. The narration is peppered with distracting purple passages about the nature of bereavement and the role of these “ordinary people who have taken on an extraordinary job”.

But, for all that, there are some startling sequences, generally relating to the difficult business of halting the process of decomposition to make corpses presentable for loved ones. Noting that “a body can start breaking down within 24 hours”, Bill talks matter-of-factly about injecting solutions and removing fluids. When asked the slightly daft question of if he ever wonders about ghosts as he embalms the deceased, the undertaker says no. Unsurprising, really, given the practical mechanics of his work.

Even more alarming are the reminiscences of a retired funeral director, Conor Massey. He recalls, with due horror, lids being popped off coffins by swelling bodies, leaving “the church absolutely stinking”. Such hazards ceased with the introduction of embalming, but he attests that the funeral director’s greatest fear remains the possibility of something going wrong.

In the end the documentary is an impressionistic portrait rather than a revealing exposé. The reserve of the undertakers might occasionally be frustrating for the listener, but, in its own way, it accurately reflects the truth. “If it didn’t affect you at times you wouldn’t be human,” says Bill. “But there’s no point in being a wreck at the foot of the stairs for the family.”

The reality of grief is highlighted on The Ray D’Arcy Show (Today FM, weekdays) when the presenter covers the story of Triona Priestley, the teenager who spent the last moments before her death, from cystic fibrosis, this week, being serenaded over the phone by the singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran. It is the kind of poignant human-interest tale that chimes with daytime chat-radio audiences, but when D’Arcy speaks to the journalist Orla Tinsley, who knew Priestley and has cystic fibrosis herself, he seems unusually oblivious to the nuances.

“It’s very sad,” says the presenter, laughing slightly, “but happy as well, because she had wanted this so much, and then it happened.”

Tinsley initially sounds nonplussed by this upbeat take. She eventually describes the experience as “wonderful” but prefers to fondly remember her friend’s life. That the conversation should be glowing but circumspect is to be expected – Priestley had died only the previous day – but it is odd for D’Arcy, normally so astute a judge of popular items, to preside over such an awkward exchange.

Pat Kenny is sometimes lampooned for his occasional tendency to eagerly show off his knowledge and intelligence at the expense of relaxed conversation. Mario Rosenstock does an exaggerated impression along these lines on the April Fool’s Day edition of The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekday). But no amount of mimicry can equal the real thing, as Wednesday’s show testifies.

In his regular science slot with Luke O’Neill, Kenny asks why some people do better in life than others, visiting the hoary topic of nature versus nurture. Still, it is an absorbing discussion, full of fascinating if inconclusive theories. The general thrust is that genes play a slightly greater role than environment, with people tending to associate with others of similar intelligence as they grow up. Cue a classic slice of Kenny theorising. “So kids with a huge intelligence in what you might call underprivileged surroundings will use their brainpower and pull themselves out of their difficulties – or else turn into master criminals,” he speculates. He then adds that others less gifted “will end up consorting with other people of not so much brainpower, and their lot will not get better”.

This may not be too wide of the mark – “That’s the sad truth,” says O’Neill – but Kenny’s clunky combination of social sciences and phrenology comes close to self-parody. It also inadvertently transforms a merely diverting item into radio gold. Still, next time Kenny might prefer to follow the undertaker’s handbook and stay silent.

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