Everything you need to know about death (but were afraid to ask)

Thinking ahead about the details – from headstones to church music – is a good idea for you and your family

The Irish wake might be renowned the world over as a fabulous send-off, but most of us don’t like to think about the fact that one day, we will all eventually meet our maker.

As the dead are honoured in the Catholic Church for All Souls Day on Saturday, there's no better time to have a conversation about dying. Here, some of the people who have made death their business share what they have learned, and the questions we should be asking each other before it's too late.

Thinking ahead

Rebecca Lloyd, public engagement officer with the Irish Hospice Foundation

"Talking about death to a parent is like talking about sex with a teenager. We all know what happens if we don't discuss it, but so often we don't," says Rebecca Lloyd, public engagement officer for the Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF), whose job it is to raise awareness about the importance of thinking, talking and planning for end of life. "We want to try and push the whole of Ireland into thinking about their death quicker and sooner, and have these conversations now when it's not so scary rather than later when they are sick or old and death looms much greater."


The IHF’s Think Ahead programme encourages people to discuss and record their preferences in the event of an emergency, serious illness, or death, so their children aren’t left at war over whether mammy wanted to be resuscitated, daddy wanted to be cremated, or any other issues pertaining to their after-death care. “It’s not the chipped china that splits families up for generations,” Lloyd says. It’s what happens in hospital settings when a conversation hasn’t been had beforehand.”

The art of dying

Bryan Nolan, communications consultant with the Irish Hospice Foundation

“It’s harder to die now than it ever was before,” says Bryan Nolan, a communications consultant who has also worked with the IHF. “In the past, everyone died at home, the community came in and prepared the body. Death was part of our DNA. Now it’s medicalised, it happens in hospitals and hospices. There are antibiotics for everything, and so many interventions that will bring people back again and again.”

When the body begins to shut down, everything retreats into the centre. The hands get colder. Their lips get dry. Their appetite vanishes. There might be a gurgling sound in the throat. This can all be extremely distressing for the family. “They think their loved one is in pain but they need to know that they are not.

“Staff will often turn to family and ask them ‘what do you want us to do’…and of course the answer is ‘everything’. But people don’t understand what everything means, what the extraordinary measures can realistically achieve. An honest conversation needs to be had about the outcomes expected from an illness, or even old age, and those who are dying need to be asked compassionately what they want.”

Having worked in pastoral care for decades, Nolan has noticed that the last person to be spoken to about death is the person who is in the bed. “They can be the loneliest person in the world. Everybody is talking about you and no one is talking to you.”

He urges people to not waste the time they have left. “Hold the person’s hand, talk to them like you would any normal person. Ask them are they frightened, is there anything they are concerned about. Assume they can hear you right up until the end. If they want to talk about their impending death, don’t change the topic.”

Most importantly, he says we should make sure everyone in the family gets private time with the person who is dying. “So often adult children try to parent their parents and they rob them the chance of being alone with their partner, to maybe climb into bed beside them and give them a kiss which they would never do with their children in the room.”

Funeral arrangements

David Fanagan, funeral director

Where once your first port of call in the event of death was the parish priest, now the first person you’re likely to contact is a funeral director. “We’re event management for a family who, for the next three to four days, have to deal with something they may not have had to deal with before,” says David Fanagan, who has been in the family funeral business for the past 45 years.

From getting the body embalmed to liaising with the church, the cemetery and the newspapers, funeral directors look after logistics. When and how will the body be removed? What will occur at the funeral service? Who can provide the music, flowers, catering? “Our job is to ensure that the event is handled with sympathy, empathy and care, making sure that nothing goes wrong during what can often be an extremely traumatic time.”

Most funeral directors offer advanced funeral planning to lessen anxiety, stress and financial worry on loved ones. “You confirm, in writing, your chosen funeral arrangements, with itemized costs with a funeral director and maybe set up a ‘funeral account’ with your local bank. Next time you have the family over for dinner you can just turn around and say ‘myself and your mother have left an advanced funeral plan with Fanagans, so if anything happens they know what our exact wishes are’.”

Care of the body

Glynn Tallon, embalmer

A funeral is typically broken into two sectors. Care of the body and care of the family. An embalmer, who is arranged by the funeral director, typically handles the care of the body.

“The first thing I do is explain the time frame to the family,” says Glynn Tallon, the founder of Tallon Mortuary Specialists. “We need your loved one for whatever amount of time because the nature of their death might mean that we have to wait to be sure our preservation has had the desired effect. We might need to relive swelling of tissue, or there might have been a lot of facial damage.”

A specialist in postmortem reconstruction, Glynn says the family doesn’t need to rush into the decision to have a body embalmed. “We are often dealing with traumatised families who are coming to terms with what has happened to them.”

It is rare for a family’s desires not to be accommodated, however. “A lot of families might think that their loved one has been so badly damaged that they can’t be viewed. Today, almost anything is possible. We are capable of restoring almost anybody to lifelike appearance. So always speak to a funeral director before you make a decision.”

Hair and make-up

Elizabeth Oakes, mortician

“You’re funeral is a bigger day than your wedding. It’s the biggest party of your life and it’s up to me to make you look the best you can,” says mortician Elizabeth Oakes.

She dedicates at least two to three hours to hair and make-up to make the bodies in her care look as like themselves as possible, even if the family has decided to go with a closed casket. “It helps in the grieving process. You never know if families are going to change their mind at the last minute and want one last look, and you don’t want it to be a traumatic experience for them.”

She asks for a recent photograph of the deceased. “Something as small as the hair parting to the wrong side will have people say ‘it just doesn’t look like mam or dad’. They might have a certain lipstick, blusher, nail varnish or cologne which I’ll ask the family to bring along.”

Religious services

Fr Kieran Mc Dermott, priest

Before my Mamo died this past May, my mother sent me into a flap when she casually called me to say she had been administered the last rites. I thought this only happened when the person was in the throes of death, but in reality, the “last rites” encompass several sacraments, including confession, Holy Communion and the anointing of the sick, and should be administered when the recipient is aware and able to benefit most.

For my family, the priest was involved for years leading up to my Mamo’s death. More commonly these days, the priest is only called after death. “The family or funeral director will contact the parish directly and a funeral ministry team will liaise with the family,” says Fr Kieran Mc Dermott, who co-ordinated the Diocesan Policy on Funerals in 2016. “These lay and religious people are trained to help the bereaved plan the funeral mass, suggesting reading and hymns and talking them through other prayers that might take place in the home, at the funeral home, and as the body arrives in the church.

“I would always go down with funeral ministry team, providing the family was open to it, so I can try and get a sense of the person whose mass I will be saying. Just looking at their picture on the wall, talking to the family, finding out that this was someone who was very private, very loving, or very difficult. There’s honesty in that. It’s not about sanctifying the person.”

Non-religious services

Brian Whiteside, Humanist minister

For those who do not want a religious ceremony, humanist ministers have provided between 200-300 funeral services in the past year. “Seventeen per cent of funerals are cremations now,” says Brian Whiteside, director of ceremonies with the Humanist Association of Ireland. “The crematoria offer good facilities for those who want a funeral where there is no church involvement. Yesterday a family booked one just for the service, and then took the coffin to a graveyard to be buried.”

The "where" has always seemed like a stumbling block for people who did not want a funeral mass, but Whiteside has performed ceremonies in hotels, in houses, in a marquee, and – perhaps a sign of the times – in both Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic churches.

“It is a trend, and it’s down to the individual parish priest or minister. It’s a great act of generosity to allow something like that. One Catholic priest who did this told me ‘the only thing on our agenda is to ease the pain of this family in whatever way we can’.”

So what happens at a humanist service?

“As the coffin is brought in there is music, the celebrant will say words of welcome, but the bulk of the ceremony is contributions from family members or close friends, who reflect on the life, capturing the essence of the person, using words and music personal to them as opposed to prayers or hymns.

“The end is a few philosophical words on the continuum of life, the humanist equivalent of the religious promise of the hereafter, which might ring hollow to people who prescribe to a more rational view about everlasting life. Essentially we are saying, this person may have left us but they live on through who they touched in life.”


Elizabeth Oakes, mortician

It’s ironic that in death, the last thing we do is further pollute the planet. About 100 people die in Ireland every day, 83 per cent of whom have a traditional Christian burial. That’s hundreds of kilos of wood, steel and embalming fluid being lowered into the earth every day. The 17 per cent who are cremated release vaporised mercury, dioxins and furans into the air.

Mortician Elizabeth Oakes hopes to launch the first Irish eco-friendly solution, aquamation, as soon as she finds premises. “It uses 17 times less energy than flame cremation, which uses almost the same amount of energy to light up Croke Park to incinerate one body. There’s no need for a coffin, as you’re body is placed in a stainless steel cylinder which is filled with 95 per cent water and 5 per cent alkaline solution, which increases the rate of tissue hydrolysis, which returns our body to it’s natural form. While there are some bones left, they can be ground down to ash. It’s just a more gentle option.”

Death notices

Dympna Coleman, founder of RIP.ie

Often, the first time the death of a loved one hits home is when the family views the death notice.

“As the time between death and burial or cremation is typically only a few days, the death notice needs to be written as soon as possible so that those wishing to attend the funeral can plan,” says Dympna Coleman, who founded RIP.ie with her brother Jay after they both missed the funeral of someone they knew well in 2005. The site has evolved since to include acknowledgements, which are linked permanently to the original death notice, anniversary, birthday and month’s mind notices.

Death notices may only be published on RIP.ie by funeral directors, who usually guide the family through the process. “The funeral director provides information specifically in relation to the timing and location of events, such as reposing, removal, mass or service, burial or cremation, with the more personal details being contributed by the family, like any special requests to those attending the funeral about flowers, charitable donations or the request to wear colourful clothing, or a short quote or phrase.”

Church music

John Manners of Churchmusic.ie

My good friend Lisa always dreamt that when she died her body would be removed from the church to the beat of Body Rockers’ I Like The Way You Move.

For the majority of us who will have a traditional Christian funeral mass, the priest or vicar vets the music beforehand, and will often object to anything that isn’t written for church or mass.

“If there is something of significance to the deceased, there is a little bit of leeway,” says John Manners of ChurchMusic.ie, a website that allows mourning families – or those planning their own services – to watch clips of 150 musicians and singers, and contact them directly. “But generally speaking the music needs to be the regular hymns.”


Carol McGowan, founder of HeartStone

Usually, the first anniversary is the point in time many people choose to install a headstone or memorial to a loved one who has passed. Traditionally this was for practical reasons, to allow the ground to settle. But for Carol McGowan, founder of HeartStone, a company that wants to put the design, colour and imagination back into memorials, it is also an emotional part of the grieving process. “It is essentially the last task that is done in memory of that loved one. It is a highly personal choice… a significant marker, and shouldn’t be rushed into.”

Once the family has a plot, a permit needs to be attained to ensure that those who are installing the memorial are properly insured (which costs between €150 and €500). You also need to check what is accepted at the cemetery, as different cemeteries have different styles and restrictions.

For people planning ahead, McGowan will take a walk with them through a cemetery, to get an idea of the type of headstone they like. “I need to discuss the practicalities, like who else might be in the grave? Do they want a memorial that will become weathered more quickly? Will there be someone around to tend to the memorial? These are all things we need to consider, and it can seem quite scary.”

For McGowan, it’s important to create a sense of connection between loved ones and the person who has passed via her artwork. “I want to create the effect that someone who knew the person could tell it was their grave just by looking at it.”