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Michael Harding: A funeral reminds me of the sweetness of silence, when conversation was more than just chatter

Annie presided over her wonderful kitchen with the authority of a speaker in the Houses of Parliament

People say it’s auspicious when it rains at a funeral. “Happy the corpse,” they say, “when rain falls on the coffin.”

But sometimes the sun comes out and they say, “She got a lovely day for the funeral.”

I suppose both are true. People like to feel that human mortality is as natural as a leaf falling, and in sync with the rhythms of nature. It’s probably a remnant of an early Christian belief in the grace and harmony of the universe.

I was in Glangevlin, Co Cavan, recently for the funeral of a woman who had been a great friend to me when she was in her late 30s and I was in my early 20s. Annie was married with young children and sat by the range while her husband worked just outside in the garage fixing tractors and cars for locals including me; we would idle at the garage door smoking cigarettes and watch Joe the mechanic with awe, as if he were a brain surgeon, while he leaned into the engine with wrenches and a greasy face to get my Fiat 127 back on the road after it burst a gasket.


The kitchen was so close that Annie could tap the window to get his attention for a mid-morning cup of tea, and me too if I was there.

I drove cheap cars that regularly required attention, so that’s how I got my feet close to the range in that wonderful kitchen of strong tea, good humour, and bawdy laughter, presided over by Annie with the authority of a speaker in the Houses of Parliament. She would bid her German shepherd get off the sofa beside the range to make room for me.

Often a circle of neighbours sat for tea, sometimes absorbed in collective silence; everyone staring out the window or lost in their own thoughts. Because in those days conversation was not just a continuous flow of chatter. There were silences, spaces in time during which the kettle hissing on the range or the dog dreaming beneath the sofa were the only sounds to break the spell, until the talking stirred again; wit and wisdom rising from the silence like ripening fruit.

And it was that sweet silence I recalled during the funeral as the priest sat beside the altar with bowed head after Communion, and grieving children sat motionless in the front pew.

I shook her husband’s strong hand as his children escorted him away but neither of us spoke. For that moment we were back again in the kitchen where the people who loved her gathered around

The American novelist Marilynne Robinson says churches are wonderful because they are the place where we make the great concession to one another that we are mortal. “We see children baptised,” she says, “that we will not live to see marry.”

I suppose that’s what makes us capable of comforting each other. We’re all in the same boat. We all look at coffins with the same unspoken fascination.

Annie knew well what Marilynne Robinson was talking about; she carried two of her children to the grave long before her own coffin was wheeled out of Glan chapel to the sound of a hymn, Nearer My God to Thee, played by a lonesome accordion.

And making a little procession behind the coffin were her devoted husband and her grieving children. Even the young ones were turning grey, and had plenty to be silent about when the music died and only the creak of the trolley beneath the coffin could be heard in the church porch.

Someone told me that as she lay waiting for the end of life, all her family gathered in the hospice. Her husband held her hand, and her dearest friend, another German shepherd, lay on the bed beside her and watched her breathing.

The sun shone on her grave, phrases of the rosary floated on the wind, and Cuilcagh mountain above us held itself in an immense silence.

I shook her husband’s strong hand as his children escorted him away but neither of us spoke. For that moment we were back again in the kitchen where the kettle sang on the range and the people who loved her gathered around to enjoy her fun and wit and laughter.

There was soup and sandwiches afterwards in the parish hall where we all used to dance on Saturday nights, when Annie was in charge of the mineral bar and dished out witty advice with every glass of lemonade or Cavan Cola that she served to the courting couples.

The sun was shining as I left the parish hall. Someone said, “That’s a lovely day now, thank God.”

And I just said, “Yes it is. Thank God.”