Mrs J’s 92-year-old granny passed away on Easter Sunday morning. Her recent poor health, combined with her age and three years living in a nursing home, meant that we were expecting this call. But when it came we were still hit with sadness and a little shock. No matter how ready you think you are to hear of the loss of a loved one, you’re never ready. Never ready to say goodbye. Never ready to completely let go.
Despite leaving us on a Sunday – the most important Sunday of the year no less – the slick, well-practised funeral process kicked in straightway. In the north of Ireland, the funeral usually takes place within two or three days, not the week or more we have to wait in Merseyside or elsewhere in Britain. This brings with it challenges – especially for family members having to cross the Irish Sea – flights booked, cars hired, buses taken (reluctantly!) and lifts secured – and offers no time to wallow or to sulk. The march to the final goodbye begins immediately.
The process is all about traditions and rituals. The local undertakers know this routine in their sleep and they do their job with extraordinary speed and smoothness. The ‘remains’ – not the body – like all important things in life, this process has its own language and tone – are retuned home. Granny went to her son, Aileen’s Dad’s home – one of the most decent and lovely men in Ireland or anywhere else – to lie in state – there is no better way to describe it – until just before the funeral Mass is due to begin. She is dressed and prepared for the days ahead and lies in her coffin – left open so that family and friends can come to pay their respects and say a proper goodbye. That phrase “pay their respects” is oft-used but I never really understood it until I experienced the last few days. In the final hour before the Mass is due to start, the coffin is closed and carried into the street – where many, many people were waiting to help her on this final journey. Family members took turns at carrying the coffin up the road – followed by the mourners – walking behind in a line of love and respect. The Mass followed and then the burial – something else we see very little of in Britain with cremation being the norm.
It is some time since most funerals in Liverpool or the surrounding area followed this pattern and I was sceptical. I was worried about the impact on loved ones and the potential for mawkishness. I was wrong. It was beautiful. It was sensitive. It was deeply moving – not sentimental – it was perfect. To see dozens and dozens – it was impossible to count but I guess over 200 people – coming to see Granny and her family at the wake in the days before the funeral Mass – some to says a few words of consolation, some to just see Mary and say a private goodbye, some to say a silent prayer or a prayer out loud and others just to offer a hug of comfort to her family. Everyone finds their own way to pay their respects but all did it with dignity and love. It was beautiful.
The way we handle the youngest, oldest and most vulnerable is surely the mark of any civilised society. The care we take over our loved ones’ final days and hours says so much about us. I was proud of how Granny was helped on her way and so proud of my wonderful wife who read with such beauty and clarity at the Mass alongside her sisters. I was so proud too of our darling daughter who charmed everyone with her smile and increasing vocabulary. Granny would have been proud too – proud to see such smart, strong, very special Irish women.
There were other special aspects too; the stunning music – bringing tears to many eyes, especially with the soloist’s rendition of Schubert’s devoted masterpiece and the hymns of our childhoods; the kindness of people who had baked cakes and biscuits and brought them as a gift to help feed the masses; and, the tea. Yes, the tea. Such is the need for a cuppa at these times, the undertaker loans the family a huge tea pot and industrial-sized urn to facilitate the ongoing, almost intravenous taking of tea by those who come to the house. As a great friend said, imagine how hard it would be to live in a country without tea!
This is Ireland so events were not without craic too. Great, great craic. This included hearing the standard lines used at such occasions; ranging from how Granny looked like herself (who else?!!); she looked really well (despite being dead); and she looked like she was just sleeping. I usually hate cliches – but on an occasion like this they become a code and a refuge – something to say to show we all know there is nothing really to say but we want to say the right thing. The chance to catch up with loved ones we see less often than we would like was taken in both hands – old stories were told and retold and retold again and again – and hugs were handed out like confetti at a wedding. This ritual of reminiscing and enveloping each other in love is so much a part of the process.
And then no sooner as it had started it was over. The house was emptied of the throngs for the previous 48 hours. The hum of chatter subsided. The door stopped opening. Granny had gone to her final resting place and her family were left alone. Alone at home. Alone in person but never in spirit – the last few days took care of that.