Berkeley funeral: Cousins Ashley Donohoe and Olivia Burke ‘were in a way like twins’

Funeral held in northern California, near home of Ashley

Ashley Donohoe and Olivia Burke were close. So close. Closer than cousins certainly. A continent and an ocean couldn't separate them.

Speaking at their funeral at a church in northern California near Ashley's home, a priest told hundreds of mourners that she surprised her cousin by travelling from Rohnert Park, California, to show up at Olivia's house in Dublin for her 18th birthday.

"Olivia was bowled over by that gesture," Monsignor Dan Whelton said in his homily at the service in the St Joseph Catholic Church in Cotati, about 75km north of San Francisco.

Ashley's mother Jackie told him that when she received the tragic news that Ashley (22), and Olivia (21), along with four other students, had been killed when a fourth-floor balcony in their apartment collapsed in Berkeley early on Tuesday morning, she travelled there immediately.

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“She saw the bodies, they were holding each other; they weren’t twins but they were very close,” Monsignor Welton said.

"They went back and forth, Ashley to Ireland, Olivia to here. They were in a way like twins. In life they were together and in death they are together too."

Referring to a photograph of the girls with arms around other on the front of the mass leaflet, Monsignor Whelton said in his homily that they acted like they were twins, noting that they look very alike.

“They were very close with each other. Their families were close with each other,” he said.

“When they were younger, they would dress alike and they would try to fool their parents into thinking that they were twins.”

The emotional service - the first funeral service for the six students killed in this week’s tragedy - was attended by family, friends and dozens of J-1 visa students in the San Francisco Bay Area who were transported up to the church in six large buses.

Minister of State for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan, seated next to the Irish Ambassador to the US Anne Anderson, greeted the families and other mourners as they entered the church.

A piper played She Moved Through The Fair as the two caskets were brought into the church, Ashley first, then Olivia.

On either side of the altar stood two large bouquets of flowers - white lilies and yellow roses on green leaves, Irish colours for a distinctly Irish ceremony for two beautiful daughters of Ireland.

It was a service marked by song, tears and happy memories of two girls whose lives were cut short far too early in life.

“”Too early? Absolutely, and out of the order of the nature of things. It shouldn’t happen, but it does,” he said.

The tragic incongruity of their untimely deaths felt all the more pronounced as the funeral fell between a joint baptism and a marriage.

Life had “scarcely just begun” for these two girls, Monsignor Welton said.

“Both of them had a good and promising story and it came to an abrupt and tragic end. The day a person dies you begin to tell their story. Ashley’s life and Olivia’s life passes before our lives. It is laid out before us with its joys and sorrows, successes and failures,” he said.

“It is like a book opened up for us to read, but the book these days is not only a matter of the print media but also the social media and their tragic deaths just went like wildfire.”

The priest paid tribute to the cousins, Olivia who studied at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology and Ashley, the daughter of Dublin parents George and Jackie who emigrated to the US in 1989, studied at Sonoma State University near San Francisco.

Monsignor Whelton described Ashley as “a kind, friendly, cheerful young woman who was outgoing, positive with time for everyone.

“No wonder they said she was a ray sunshine and respected by her peers,” he added.

She excelled at her studies and "didn't sit around twiddling her thumbs," he said, holding down two jobs - one at a grocery store and another at a restaurant, while working as an intern at Sonoma County coroner's office.

“Ashley was bright and driven,” he said.

Olivia’s brother Gavin told the priest that Olivia was “a very kind person and she was a caring person,” Monsignor Whelton said.

“She was fun loving with a great smile, and she was always willing to help and she was a person who was more concerned about the other person than herself. In other words, she was unselfish,” he said.

Olivia’s father Paul said that she had a great work ethnic in her studies.

“She was diligent but they also said she was fun-loving and enjoyed the craic,” Monsignor said.

Addressing the different associations with that word in Ireland and the US, the priest added: “I mean that word in the Irish understanding,” he said to laughs. “It simply means enjoying yourself.”

Monsignor Welton sought to comfort the families in attendance - Ashley's parents George and Jackie, and her younger sister Amanda, and Paul and Paula Burke and Olivia's brother Gavin.

He said that they had suffered a great loss and touched briefly on the possible cause of the accident.

“Naturally all of us ask: why did all of this happen?” he said. “Sometimes it can be put down to human error but we just really don’t know. For some there is a tendency to say well it is the will of God but you know what, God did not want this tragedy to happen?”

Amanda was among the readers; she read scripture, Isaiah 49:16: “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget but I will not forget you. Behold I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

Also in attendance were Captain Andrew Greenwood of Berkeley Police Department and Captain Michael Sullivan of the Berkeley Fire Department whose officers were on Kittredge Street at the scene of Tuesday's tragedy just minutes after the accident.

Among the priests celebrating the mass were Fr Brendan McBride of Irish Immigration Pastoral Centre in San Francisco, Fr John McNerney, chaplain at UCD, where three of the six deceased students studied, and Fr Stephen Canny, who baptised Ashley in the same church, St Joseph's, more than two decades ago.

Parents of some of the seven other students who were injured, some critically in the balcony collapse, attended the service.

The mourners filed out of the church as the piper played the New World Symphony by Antonin Dvorak.

Outside, on a sun-drenched day, the piper played On Raglan Road as Olivia’s parents and brother leaned into the hearse to touch her casket for a final time ahead of the 8,000 kilometre journey back to Ireland.

The bodies of the other four victims of this week's tragedy - Niccolai (Nick) Schuster, Eimear Walsh, Lorcán Miller and Eoghan Culligan - are being flown back on a scheduled flight from San Francisco today.

Near the grieving families after the service, Rusty Rudick, a close family friend of the Donohoe and Burke families, read a statement on behalf of the families.

“The family wants everyone to know and understand that Ashley and Olivia were two intelligent, talented and hardworking young women. They had bright futures ahead of them,” he said.

“We will fight to make changes so that no family will ever have to go through what we’ve been through for the past five days, which has changed our lives forever.

“Our daughters and the rest of these students were responsible young adults that were celebrating their friend’s 21st birthday in what they felt was a safe environment. Unfortunately, that turned tragic through no fault of their own.”

He said that Ashley was “dedicated to making a difference in this world,” and that she would be honoured to raise money for cystic fibrosis on behalf of her younger cousin who is home in Ireland.

The family asked that in lieu of flowers that mourners make a donation to Cystic Fibrosis Ireland, reading out their website, www.cfireland.ie

He concluded asking the media on behalf of the Donohoe and Burke families “to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent