Fintan O’Toole: We can’t help giving meaning to this absurd virus

Covid-19 is cruelly capricious but human beings need to attach significance to suffering

Funeral director Pat Blake places a white rose on the coffin of Anne Best, Co Fermanagh’s first coronavirus victim, at St Ninnidh’s Cemetery in Derrylin. Photograph: John McVitty

Funeral director Pat Blake places a white rose on the coffin of Anne Best, Co Fermanagh’s first coronavirus victim, at St Ninnidh’s Cemetery in Derrylin. Photograph: John McVitty

On Saturday, out for my one permitted walk, I saw something I don’t think I have ever seen before. Stopped at the traffic lights, there was a hearse. In the back was a coffin. And that was it – nothing else. A word came to mind, one of those words we only ever use in a single context: cortège. It meant, originally, the train of attendants on an important person. We use it to mean the procession of cars that follows in the wake of the hearse, signalling by their presence that this, too, was an important person.

But there was no cortège. The lights changed and the hearse moved off unaccompanied, in bleak solitude, in the direction of Glasnevin Cemetery. I found myself trying to stand to attention as it passed, to signal somehow to the person in the coffin that he or she was important. But the hearse slid quickly away on the empty road and the gesture seemed pitiful. I walked on.

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