‘We are in uncharted territory when it comes to access to the deceased’
Storm Emma: Crematorium and cemeteries close, funerals deferred due to extreme weather
Snow scene in Fairview Park, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Even in the most extreme weather events the business of death continues as undertakers, priests and gravediggers assist mourners and the dead.
“I am just after doing a funeral,” said Fr Paddy Byrne in Co Laois on Thursday. “The crematorium in Dublin is closed so in that context they will have to keep the body over in the hospital,” he explained.
It was the first of two funerals for the Portlaoise-based priest that day. Fr Byrne said the conditions can be distressing for loved ones; in the case of the second funeral the body was to be buried without delay and Fr Byrne admitted, “I don’t know whether they will get to the grave.”
St Peter and Paul’s Church, the only Catholic Church in Portlaoise, was due to close for the first time in its 54-year history on Thursday afternoon until Saturday morning. However, the work wasn’t at an end for Fr Byrne, who covers the town’s hospital. “The country can shut down but we will continue,” he said, “hail or snow when they call I will go.”
Parish priest Monsignor John Byrne said the funerals had gone on but the weather conditions were continuing to deteriorate. He said, “our gravediggers have worked through the last day”. Mgsr Byrne described the weather as “unprecedented” and said the church has never had to close its doors before. He has been liaising with the local authority and emergency co-ordination group and heeded the advice to close the church on health and safety grounds.
In Tullamore, Co Offaly funeral director Phil O’Reilly said he was going ahead with one funeral and postponing another at the wishes of the family.
“If someone passes away we will do our best to get to them and look after them,” he explained. Likewise, funeral director Patrick Larkin in nearby Edenderry said he was in the process of postponing a funeral and had already shut his pub. He pointed out that there were a lot of people involved in a funeral from musicians and florists to priests and gravediggers.
“It is safety first for the people attending and for the people who work in the undertaking business,” he said.
Irish Association of Funeral Directors (IAFD) spokesman Colm Kieran likened his association’s response to the one taken during Storm Ophelia. He said his members would have received texts 48-hours earlier warning them not to make arrangements. With modern embalming, Mr Kieran said, “we have the ability to delay a funeral if necessary and still have a presentation period for the family”.
In terms of snow, he believed the blizzard of 1982 was the only comparable event and as it was 36 years ago, it is one that many funeral undertakers do not have experience of working through.
“We are in uncharted territory when it comes to access to the deceased,” said Mr Kieran, who explained that many funeral directors would have four-wheel drive vehicles, particularly those operating in rural areas. “Lots of Dublin cemeteries have informed funeral directors that they are actually closing until further notice,” he added.
A spokeswoman for Massey Bros undertakers in Dublin said, “from our perspective we would be led by the priest and cemetery or crematorium and we would also be led by the family”.
Like the other funeral directors, she said, “the safety of mourners would be paramount”.