A day that's alive with meaning

Road traffic laws are suspended, hundreds crowd the churches and communities come together during the vibrant tradition of Cemetery…

Road traffic laws are suspended, hundreds crowd the churches and communities come together during the vibrant tradition of Cemetery Sunday, with Rosita Boland

THROUGHOUT JULY AND August in parishes all over rural Ireland, large crowds gather at churches for the annual ritual that is known as Cemetery Sunday. This is the day of the year when long-scattered families come together with those who have remained in the area, and for one significant day, they briefly form a community again as they honour their dead relatives. A special Mass is followed by a blessing of the graves, which will have been cleaned and tidied in the preceding days.

It's August 10th, and it's Cemetery Sunday in Aughavas, Co Leitrim, a small townland a few miles from Mohill in which the one pub in the village also acts as its only shop, as well as the post office. Like most other Cemetery Sundays around the country, the one in Aughavas is held during the summer, when the maximum number of people are home on holidays. There's a school, a church and three cemeteries. Before the Famine, there was a population of 14,000 in this parish alone. Leitrim, like Mayo, was one of the counties most affected by emigration both in the aftermath of the Famine, and again in the 1950s and 1980s. Today there are 700 people living in the parish.

Fr Cathal Faughnan has been parish priest for Aughavas and Cloone for 13 years. He has decided - reluctantly, due to an appalling forecast - that this year's Mass will be held in the church, rather than outdoors in one of the parish's three cemeteries, as is traditional. The old cemetery is directly behind the church, St Joseph's, the "new" cemetery is near the top of the road, and Cavan cemetery, little-used now, is some two miles distant.


The Mass is due to start at 11.30am. In the relaxed Irish way, the church is virtually empty at 11.15am. Then within five minutes the adjoining car park is suddenly crammed with cars displaying registration plates from all over Ireland. Looking down the narrow road, vehicles are parked on either side of it in both directions: abandoned in verges, double parked, parked in front of gates. The normal etiquette of parking doesn't apply this morning.

"Cemetery Sunday brings the whole parish together in one day," says Bernie Earley, who still lives in Aughavas. "It's the one day of the year you see nearly all of them." Of the classmates that he went to school with, down the road from the church, Earley reckons that only 10 per cent of them stayed living in the area. "Maybe less than that, even."

IN THE DAYS preceding the designated Sunday, relatives visit the cemeteries to clean their family graves, weed the plots, tidy up, and plant flowers. Among those maintaining a family grave this week was Sean Faughnan, who now lives in London. "Sean brought the children with him to help clean his father's grave, their grandfather," Siobhan Faughnan explains, standing on the steps of the church with several extended family members.

"It's important for the children to understand something of their heritage," Siobhan stresses. "In England, we treat death and its ritual very differently. There, funerals are short and sweet, done and dusted. Here, there are still the old ways. People are waked at home. You don't hide from death. What always strikes me when we come back here is that someone is always going to a funeral. It seems to be very important here that people attend funerals, the wider community, not just family."

Carmel Charles, from Kilcormack, Co Offaly, is here today with her daughter Margaret. Her husband Christopher, who grew up in the parish, died 25 years ago and is buried in Aughavas, even though he spent his married life in Offaly. "He always wanted to be buried back home," Carmel explains. "We try and come back every year for this Sunday." Carmel, like many others present, is anxious to stress that today "is a happy day. It's like we're all united together again as a family when we stand by the grave."

"It's important to remember the dead," comments Mel Kelleher, whose father and grandparents are buried in the new cemetery. "That'll be us some day. Wouldn't we like to think that someone will remember us when we're gone?"

The Duignan siblings, Mary, Jim, Brendan and Gerry, originally from Aughavas, are now scattered to Meath, Westmeath, Waterford and London. Their father James died in 1986, their mother Rose in 1990, and both are buried in the new cemetery, close to the top of the Mohill road. "We come every year. It grows bigger every year. It's only ever kept building up in numbers over the last 20 years we've been coming," Mary says. Last night, despite the rain, they rigged up a canopy and had a barbecue and a sing-song at the old family home across the field from the church, which they still maintain.

By 11.30am, it becomes clear that there is a second reason, apart from its proximity to the graves, why Cemetery Sunday Mass is usually held outdoors - space. In the church, children are hauled onto parent's laps, two to a lap, people have to squeeze up along the pews, men stand at the back, and people stand in the entrance, along the side walls, in the organ gallery, and on the gallery steps. The church, which Fr Faughnan estimates has a capacity for 450, is completely jammed, as is the area outside the entrance.

"These cemeteries in Aughavas are the resting place of people dear to us," Father Faughnan says during his short sermon, to which the congregation listen with unusual attentiveness. "They are sacred places because of those who lie there. Bereavement and sorrow are the price of love."

The rain holds off for the blessing of the graves. It starts in the old cemetery behind the church: a beautiful, and beautifully-kept, serene and verdant place where swallows and swifts dart between the leaning headstones and the dark-green yew trees.

Many of the same surnames turn up over and over again. McCabe. Moran. Flood. Curran. Quinn. Charles. Kiernan. O'Rourke. McGovern.

People go to their own particular family plot and quietly stand beside it. Each of the cemeteries will be blessed in turn. Later, at the new cemetery, Fr Faughnan says when introducing the rosary: "The link of life might be broken, but the link of love cannot be broken."

Some people talk in low voices, but mostly they're silent, as they wait for Fr Faughnan to come over with his holy water and incantations. One woman lays her hand tenderly on top of a headstone, and strokes it, over and over again. A tired child sits down unselfconsciously right in the middle of the family grave itself, and starts playing with the tiny stones it's covered with. An elderly man in a suit cradles an infant closely as he holds her up to be photographed in front of his late wife's headstone. A couple stand arm in arm, flowers pinned on the woman's lapel - the same kind as the newly-planted flowers on the grave beneath them.

Everywhere you look, there is a simple but powerful tableaux of memento mori: repeated moments where the dead grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, sons and daughters buried here are at least as vividly present as their still living relatives.

Here and in the other two cemeteries, Fr Faughnan does not only bless the graves that have been claimed by people. He also blesses those graves that have no representatives to stand beside them. For today at least, none of the dead in Aughavas is forgotten or unvisited.