Chapter One – This is Mr. Death….
Death is a process in Ireland.
A detailed ritual.
It has different traditions depending on your location within the country – whether north or south, on the islands or the mainland, in the town or the country.
I only learned this recently, when I viewed a clip posted by Irish author Kevin Toolis. I highly recommend listening to it. Its quite beautiful. (https://www.facebook.com/bbc/videos/2224550397560147/ )
Toolis was speaking about the passing of his father on a coastal island in the south west of Ireland. He talks very movingly about the death and wake, and the presence of ‘The Keeners.’
I have been to many funerals and wakes in Belfast in the twenty years I’ve lived here, on ‘both’ sides of the ‘divide,’ but I have never attended a wake with keeners – the women, and sometimes men, who lead the vocal lament for the dead or dying.
The word ‘Keening’ originates from the Irish ‘caoineadh,’ which means ‘crying.’ Keening can be in the form of wailing, weeping, the recitation of a prayer, and/or rocking back and forth.
The Keening women (mnàthan-tuirim) pay respect to the deceased person, and express the grief of the bereaved family. They were often paid for their services, just like the undertaker or the Priest.
At deathbeds and wakes in Nationalist working class areas of Belfast, I have seen family members themselves take on the role of the keeners. It is often they who say the prayers at the bedside of the dead or dying, or they who remain with the body in the wake room, once it has been returned home in the coffin.
In many Belfast households it is tradition that on the last night before the burial, the body of the deceased should never be left alone in the wake room. Someone is always there, at all hours, even if they fall asleep. Some also believe there must be someone in the same room as the body throughout the entire wake, which usually lasts 3 days. I don’t know if this is the case elsewhere.
I feel oddly disappointed to find that the tradition of keening is not really part of the ritual of death in the north – as if a crucial part of the process is suddenly missing. I wonder if that is down to different local custom, geography or politics. Perhaps keening is still present – in rural counties – and just lost here in the city. I am now curious to find out.
There is an agenda that accompanies death in the communities I have visited and been a part of. There is ritual and order. In the midst of the chaos of bereavement and loss, that is probably a good thing. It gives one some sort of construct to hold on to for support.
But before I came to Belfast I had very limited contact with death. A childhood friend’s father passing suddenly, as the result of an accident. The loss of my grandparents – on both paternal and maternal sides. My great grandmother. A few tragic deaths of friends of my parents, the details of which I was generally shielded from and certainly never felt profoundly, beyond a brief sadness at their passing.
Only the death of a beloved pet impacted directly on me, and in those cases I was often inconsolable for some time. But in general, death’s presence – luckily – was not really a part of my day to day life. He was a distant visitor.
It is not surprising therefore, that my very first close brush with mortality was a traumatic one.
I was still living in Canada then.
I was 20 years old.
It involved the sudden and dramatic death of my dear friend Mike Creary. He himself was only 19 at the time.
He died on a beautiful warm sunny day in June, in our hometown. Right on the main street, as a matter of fact. He was riding his motorcycle when he was struck and killed instantly by a truck coming the opposite direction.
But once again, I experienced a strange exclusion from death.
First of all, I was informed of the accident by another close friend – John – who refused to take me to the scene. He did not want me to see the blood on the road and the twisted metal frame of what was left of Mike’s motorcycle. It had affected him deeply and he wanted to spare me the same pain.
I insisted that I needed to go, needed to see for myself, and begged John to take me, but he steadfastly refused.
When I visited the scene alone later that night, almost all trace of the collision had been washed away. My friend’s life blood had been hastened down the storm drain with a high powered hose. Just gone, like a wisp of smoke you wave your hand through.
I picked up a piece of plastic from a broken headlight that lay against one curb and clung to it as I sat there in the stillness.
I still have it, more than 30 years later.
Because of the injuries Mike had sustained in the accident, there was no open casket. No viewing of the body. Even his poor mother did not get to see him. His body was taken directly from the scene, to the morgue, to the funeral home, and placed in the casket. Shut. Done. Gone.
Just like that.
There was a kind of ‘wake’ – if one can call it that – at the funeral home a day later.
I attended, but have little memory of it.
I do recall that it was not a wake as they have in Ireland. It was basically just a memorial service prior to the funeral.
I found it impossible to reconcile Mike’s absence with the closed casket before me. I could not believe he was in there. It was not real. To me it seemed that he had just vanished. And I was being asked to accept that my friend had died with no proof that it had even happened.
I did not accept it.
Not even remotely.
I was devastated by Mike’s passing. He and I had become especially close in the year before he died, and we had even made plans to meet the day he was killed. He had been due to come to my house just before the accident occured.
The day of his funeral and burial, I was pretty much inconsolable. I vaguely recall the funeral mass, in a Catholic Church. It was my first Catholic funeral. In fact, it was my first funeral period, and I remember being angry that it hardly seemed to be about Mike at all. It seemed like a regular mass service, with barely a mention of Mike as an individual. No talk of his character or identity, other than as a child of God and of the Church. It probably did not help that the Priest did not know Mike or his family to begin with.
The funeral mass was followed by his burial.
I am told that I collapsed at his graveside. I am horrified by this in retrospect. His poor family had enough to deal with. But I have no memory of it at all. None. Or what I did afterwards, where we went, exactly who was with me.
I have no memory, in fact, of the days that followed either. Its all a blank. Only small glimpses, flashes of what I might have done…like a dream you are not sure you even had.
Just as suddenly as the accident itself, Mike was gone, and I had all this unresolved emotion, confusion and anger with no place to go. I basically locked myself in my darkened bedroom and cried for the first 3 months, venturing out of the house only to visit the cemetery or try to find solace with friends who shared in my grief.
Death was something my family did not discuss.
Most things that matter in life were things my family did not discuss.
So at home, Mike’s passing was treated as an unspoken and unacknowledged unpleasantness.
My parents did not speak to me about it. They did not offer any comfort. Probably because they had no idea how to do so. They had spent so many years stiffling their own sadness and distance that conflict was often the only remaining way for them to communicate. Honest or emotional displays were considered melodrama. It made them uncomfortable.
When my mother did speak of Mike’s death, she tossed out dismissive and insulting cliches. “Life goes on” and ‘these things happen” and other equally trite shit, which in no way acknowledged my sense of loss or grief, or the enormity of a close friend’s death.
I found this demeaning. It equated Mike’s passing and my memories of him to the inconvenience of missing a bus or spilling milk. It was not an appropriate response, nor was it in any way comforting.
My father never spoke of it at all. Though he saw the large hole I had kicked in the dining room wall as the horrible news had sunk in. Normally he would have had plenty to say about damage like that. But this time, he never mentioned it. Not a word. My raw emotion was too difficult for my father to confront.
In fact, any time I mentioned the accident – or the sadness and emotion leaked out of me – it was met with exasperation, embarrassment and unease. Or worse, derision. I was accused of being ‘dramatic’ and ‘over-emotional.’
Which was par for the course. I had always been accused of this. I was an emotional person, especially in my teens.
But my parents response made me feel ashamed of my transparant feelings and I resented that bitterly. It was a sad indictment of my family’s isolation. And it left me feeling as if my deep grief was somehow inappropriate
So I had no meaningful support from my parents, and no ritual or faith to cling to as I worked out what all this meant and how I was supposed to go on. I was expected to simply shake off the loss. To work through it on my own, with only my equally-distraught friends to cling to. And they had their own confusion.
What did we know of death?
In lieu of any traditional guidance, the pagan in me came to the fore with a vengance. I took to creating my own rituals to help myself process the loss. I lit candles. I planted flowers around his grave. I visited him. Ate lunch with him. Shared my daily thoughts.
A friends mother – who was Greek in ancestry – told me that the Greek people believe that the soul does not leave the earth until 40 days after death. During that time the soul of the departed wanders the earth, visiting places they lived, their family and friends, as well as their fresh grave.
I took this idea to heart, and made sure to visit Mike’s graveside every day or night during that 40 day period, honouring his loss, seeking some sense of him. To say the goodbye we had been denied by his sudden and cruel passing.
Mike’s graveside was – bizarrely – the one place I felt at peace with his absence. It was the only place I did not find myself constantly turning events over in my mind. I didnt feel the pain of his loss there, which seems very strange. Maybe because it made me feel closer to him.
I would sit on the grass beside his grave. Sometimes I lit a small tea candle in his memory. I would talk to him or simply sit in the silence of the place, listening to the birds. Sometimes I would sit on the nearby bench that overlooked the river below. It was a safe and private place to release my sorrow, a refuge from the void his passing had created.
I spent hours there every day or so, during that first summer and fall. Sometimes I went at night, when I was unable to sleep or just wanted to be sure I could be alone – as I sometimes came across other mourners visiting nearby loved ones during the day. I was very much a night person even then, so it did not seem a strange time for me to go.
But sadly, to others in my circle of friends it seemed very strange indeed. And at one point I was told a rumour was circulating that I was holding séances at Mike’s graveside in the darkness, like a sorcerer trying to conjure him from the earth.
Such idiocy was insulting and inflammatory, and I worried Mike’s family might ask me not to go there anymore if they got wind of it. Then my grief would have no respite. It hurt and angered me deeply that people would say something so cruel and ignorant.
This insensitive gossip deepened my sense of isolation. From then on I never told anyone if I was going to visit Mike – with only one or two exceptions. It became a very private act of remembrance. It remains so to this day. I almost always visit alone.
It took me over a year to climb out of the devastation.
Over time Mike’s passing become a concealed wound. A faded, hidden mark. Invisible but ever-present. It might not hurt as much these days, might not be as painful, but it will always be there. And if I dwell on it, it still grieves me to the core.
But his loss also created a bond. One that continues to link those closest to Mike at that time together, even decades later. A bond which would be reconsecrated some 30 plus years after Mike’s passing – again, with death at its core.
But that is a story yet to be told…Sinn scéal ella, as the Irish say. And I will tell it soon. I promise
Mike’ s death was a hard time. Everything changed after that. Our large circle of friends splintered into smaller groups, then drifted slowly away from one another. Mike had been the cog in our wheel.
Now that cog was missing.
And we were all spinning out into the big, wide world – marked, and forever changed by our knowing.