One of the more unexpected and troubling aspects of grief is its regenerative quality. Death has a terrible and abrupt finality to it but it also excavates, in the way a flood or a landslide might, all manner of buried things for those in its proximity. Issues that were thought dealt with, or at least filed away and forgotten, return with a vengeance. The bereaved might find themselves beset not just by intrusive thoughts about their loved one’s passing, but much earlier hauntings.
Such is the territory of The Last Good Funeral of the Year, a novelistic memoir by Irish-Canadian writer Ed O’Loughlin. Born in Toronto, the author grew up in Kildare town and, after periods serving as an Africa and Middle East correspondent, he now lives in Dublin with his family. This latest book, which follows four novels, was precipitated by the death of his ex-girlfriend, Charlotte, and amplified by the Covid-19 lockdowns that followed.
Although or perhaps because they had not been together for more than two decades, her demise brought about a profound reassessment of O’Loughlin’s own life, his past, those who’d been lost along the way, and his complicity therein. The author does not spare himself, and there are times when the book’s confessional aspect edges towards self-flagellation.
This is a writer who recognises, as many of those bereaved do, especially those grieving from a distance, the moral precarity of their feelings
If O’Loughlin’s apologetic humility seems at times excessive – Dante created The Divine Comedy out of “some middle life bullshit” after all – it does lend a humane quality to the book. This is a writer who recognises, as many of those bereaved do, especially those grieving from a distance, the moral precarity of their feelings. An innate solipsism is involved (there is a “me” in memoir, after all) but O’Loughlin’s admission of this, however initially uncomfortable, makes the book resound. Death is a deeply personal affair.
The darkness of the subject matter might cause any book to tip into the mawkish or morbid. There are certainly poignant and brutal moments in The Last Good Funeral of the Year, especially O’Loughlin’s recollections of the manner and aftermath of his brother’s suicide, but the author has a lightness of touch and tenderness throughout. You feel as if you are almost listening to the recollections rather than reading them. The author turns thoughts over and works through them in a manner that might be called therapeutic, but he does so in a ruminative way that makes you reflect upon your own experiences.
The book is fundamentally concerned with time and doubt, concerns that only increase with age. It orbits them, trying to find answers. “How did I get here?” it seems to ask. “What happened us?” The book is strongest when it reaches beyond reason and into a more mysterious realm of the poetic, given that so much of life is so complex and paradoxical it defies convenient explanation, and characters cannot be simply reduced to things they did.
O’Loughlin attempts “to gather all the fragments that he had of Charlotte” in the form of digital traces, but it’s woefully insufficient. What is mourned is not just what was known but what was unrecorded or unknowable in other people.
In the process, O'Loughlin is writing about what he himself could have been and undergoes a kind of mourning for it
The book roams around Ireland and far beyond to locations passed through and consecrated by the experiences undertaken or shared there. It is a nostalgic book in the original Ancient Greek sense, mixing the words for “seeking home” and “pain”. Yet O’Loughlin acknowledges he has found his home, in the present with his beloved family.
What is the source of this yearning then? The answer would seem to lie in contingency. The almosts, could have beens, paths not taken. “She could have become anything,” he writes of Charlotte “and that’s how he would always remember her.” The implication is there with his lost brother, too, and all the chances he’d had to escape his downward spiral. In the process, O’Loughlin is writing about what he himself could have been and undergoes a kind of mourning for it.
One of the intoxications of youth is an immense sense of possibility. Yet, in the end, life happens on one path, however divergent it is (and O’Loughlin has lived a life of considerable adventure). “You have to choose your future regrets” as a dying Christopher Hitchens once put it.
The Last Good Funeral of the Year is an absorbing, meditative text, equally affectionate and unflinching, engaging head-on with the pain of saying farewell to youth and accepting mortality. Occasionally it drifts off-piste, feeling like an eclectic and vivid, if somewhat fragmentary, series of accounts, but it ultimately finds a stoical wisdom. This is a memoir and life cursed by “stoppages” that nevertheless manages to wander with inquisitiveness, compassion and resolve. It is a moving testament to the paths that lost loved ones, however briefly they were known, can still lead us on.