The way we die now
The Irish are famously good at throwing a funeral, but with more wakes, cremations and nonreligious ceremonies, how we mark a loved one’s passing is changing
Séamus Griffin of Kirwans. Photograph: Frank Millar
Colin McAteer of Green Coffins Ireland. Photograph: Patrick Browne
In the middle of Dublin a group of friends and family gather to tell funny, moving stories and sing songs while a slideshow of photographs runs behind them. They’re celebrating the life of a much-loved woman who has died after a long illness. A humanist celebrant unobtrusively introduces and encourages the speakers. Contributions are often spoken directly to the deceased. There’s a minute’s silence when people are encouraged to pray if they wish.
People laugh. Speakers struggle with tears. At the end of each contribution there’s a round of applause. The congregation is colourfully dressed, some in T-shirts and summer dresses. The celebrant is formally clad, but in light colours. The most conspicuously dark-suited people are the funeral directors. At the end, everyone circles around the wicker coffin as they leave, in a gesture of respect. There’s no incense. No prayers for the dead. There is no god at this funeral.
This year Brian Whiteside of the Humanist Society of Ireland expects there to be more than 100 humanist funerals in Ireland. He lists a number of prominent people who have had such send-offs in recent years, including the journalist Mary Raftery and the politician Justin Keating. When Whiteside started officiating, in 2006, he performed four funerals. “In 2007 it went up to 12. Then last year we did 78. This year we expect to do over 100.”
The Irish do funerals well. Everyone seems to agree on this. But Irish funerals are changing. John Kirwan of Kirwans Funeral Directors in north Dublin, who has been in the business for more than 50 years, recalls when every funeral he did was Catholic. He also recalls a time, before embalming, when coins were placed on the deceased’s eyes, a Bible was put under the chin (to keep mouth and eyes shut) and a bow was tied around their head.
As long as Séamas Griffin, the current managing director of Kirwans, has been in the business, bodies have been embalmed. (“We even do make-up and dye hair. The details are important to people.”)
In their display room he shows me Irish oak coffins with detailed inlays beside more ecologically friendly wicker caskets. In a display case are the urns. Nowadays about 30 per cent of people in Dublin are cremated when they die. “A decade ago that was only 5 per cent,” says Griffin. This is partially, he says, because older burial plots are filling up, but it’s also because people are beginning to appreciate the romance of having their ashes scattered in places that were significant to them.
In Ireland funerals have always been a community phenomenon. That said, there’s much lower attendance at funerals now in the city, though Griffin acknowledges that this is different for his country colleagues. “Ten years ago at removals in Fairview [in Dublin] you wouldn’t be able to get into the place, whereas now you’d have the immediate family and friends. I think our attitude in the cities is becoming a little like the UK. It becomes a private thing.”
Yet some old traditions are making a comeback. The wake, for example. This is partially, says Griffin, because there aren’t enough priests in Dublin to accommodate removals, but largely because people find these events cathartic. “It’s not like the old myth of people swigging out of bottles of poitín and whisky around the open coffin. People arrive at the house to pay their respects. They talk to the family and talk to the deceased and have a cup of tea and a chat . . . They’re not there until 4am.”
Griffin grew up working for his family’s undertaking business in Ashbourne, Co Meath. “People say, ‘Was it like that programme Six Feet Under?’ ” he says with a laugh. “And I say, ‘Yeah, that type of thing.’ I was about 14 when my old man started bringing me out. We could be at home, having a family dinner Christmas day, and the doorbell would ring and someone would say, ‘Tom has just passed,’ and they’d need help and advice. They’d be brought into the sitting room and would sit down, and you’d sit there and go through the arrangements.