As a priest in a rural parish in Co Mayo I have had five funerals in recent weeks. They were like nothing I had ever anticipated. They first took me to the porch of the church to welcome the coffin in that sprinkling of holy water that connects with the first visit to the church for Baptism.
The widow stood behind the coffin. They had no children, and no more than myself stood there as a solitary reminder that things were not as they should be. I looked at her and she at me. It was the first time we met, and I felt terrible. I could not even walk over to her, put my hand in hers and whisper in her ear “sorry for your trouble” and that we would do our best.
I nodded to her and mouthed “sorry”, and she half-smiled with a fully broken heart. Her nephews and nieces were there but no neighbour, though he was a musical man who loved company and enjoyed friendship.
The Mass began. I tried to connect with her and, to her credit, she knew where we were located in time and that, for now, words were some comfort. Prayers were necessary but the absence of people was truly felt.
Sadness and laughter
The other funerals were similar, but I cannot get my head or heart around how difficult it must be for families. Everything in them is about grief and they need to share that grief with family and friends.
There is a desire to talk and to listen, to recall and to hope, to be sad and then to have a moment of laughter when an old story is told for the 1,000th time but as if it had never been heard before.
Everything in them is about grief and they need to share that grief with family and friends
Words on a website expressing sympathy can never take the place of a familiar face in front of you, not least the face of someone who has travelled a distance and maybe from the past, who arrives in the line and leaves a feeling of breathlessness in those who grieve and afterwards marvel at “how good it was of Frank or Maureen to travel all that distance”.
This only serves to remind them how loved they are and how much was thought of the one they grieve.
In this current reality, I cannot help but think of the way we normally respond to a death in the community. It is as if the absolute best in us comes alive at a time of death. Houses are taken over by neighbours. Food is prepared in other kitchens and taken to the home of the grieving family. Car parking and outside lighting are set up and monitored and volunteers are there without even being asked. Nothing that can be done is left undone.
It truly is strange then, as a priest, not to be able to meet with families before or after the funeral. It is sad not to be able to hear them speak of the one who has died and, from that speaking, get a sense of the person, of how much he or she was loved and the difference he or she made.
Neighbours stand on the edge of the road, light up their houses and just want to be there to respect the dead
Despite that, I have been amazed at how people accept the current situation and adapt. Amazed too, and proud of neighbours who have found ways of showing solidarity through standing on the edge of the road, lighting up their houses or just wanting to be there in some way that respects the one who has died, supports the family and keeps within the restrictions that Covid-19 has imposed.
Those I encountered have been so graceful in grief and my hope for them is that the gap left through the absence of neighbours and extended family is somehow bridged by the prayers we have offered together and the respect shown to all who have died in these strange and challenging times.
I think of the line from the song Danny Boy "You'll come and find the place where I am lying and kneel and say an Ave there for me..."
We will find the place, say the Ave and, we will remember.