The Funeral Director: An exquisite, profound portrait of a profession

Watching this disarming documentary, you find yourself considering your own mortality

Blessed with a naturally sympathetic face, and a soft, consoling, baritone voice, David McGowan makes for an effortlessly reassuring figure.

That's just as well, you feel, because the subject of Gillian Marsh's exquisite documentary The Funeral Director (RTÉ One, Wednesday, 9.35pm) is a man in the business of death. "We'd be surrounded by death every week," McGowan says as the programme begins. "It's normal."

As though to emphasise the point, in the first of many artful details, we watch McGowan attempt to locate a headstone, somewhere in a graveyard. A single, beautifully deployed aerial shot reveals both its orderliness and its vastness. He is surrounded by death. It’s normal.

McGowan came to his practice by accident when his father acquired a bar in Sligo, and, with it, the unanticipated additional services it provided for the community in a time before funeral parlours. (The first of these in Ireland, we learn, opened in Cork in 1968.) It gives you a sense of how unhesitant McGowan is on the subject to what prompted him to pursue professional training in Chicago: an emergency call when a coffin began groaning and leaking because the body inside had not been embalmed.

The documentary follows his unflinching, demystifying lead, and though it helps that McGowan is so reflective, so articulate, the programme portrays him as vividly in actions as words.

“That’s him,” McGowan says, settling the glasses upon the face of a carefully embalmed body. In the gesture, at once professional and tender, you realise the intimacy and artistry of the profession. You may genuinely learn things too – the precise costs of a funeral, gravedigger superstitions, the science of embalming, the process of cremation – and, so disarmed by it all, find yourself comfortably considering your own mortality.

In the programme's extraordinary second half, we meet someone considering his own. This is Captain Dougie Hopkins, a pilot in the late stages of terminal cancer, and a friend of McGowan's. Although an expert in grief, and its expression, McGowan is slow to share grievances: the closest he comes, touchingly, is his pride in converting a decommissioned 767 airliner into glamping accommodation.

“I’m not known now as the grim reaper,” he says, standing in its fuselage. “I’m known as the man who brought in the plane.” But this is not a sanctuary: it will be Dougie’s resting place. His ashes, combined with a tree, will take root in the plane’s tail.

In their friendship, which began with the immensely sensitive funeral of Dougie’s infant daughter, we see two men preparing for death; nobly, philosophically, practically. Even without Saso-Kevin Corcoran’s affecting score, this would be profoundly moving to witness. Marsh, as discreet and tactful as her subject, continues to show Dougie’s interviews after his passing, ensuring a presence beyond death.

Nothing is quite as startling, respectful or profound, though, as seeing McGowan dutifully washing his friend’s hair, shaving him, dressing him in his pilot’s uniform and finally regarding him. “Yes,” McGowan says, “that’s him.”

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