Just this week I sat at my desk, turned on the laptop, turned off the cell phone, and attended a funeral online. Subsequently, I signed an online condolence book. That’s the only way most of us can pay homage to death, that great leveler.
The days of brushing my black coat, checking the location on Google Maps, and sneaking around a crowded church are over. As for the post-sociability where you would meet old friends and relatives, maybe have something to eat and drink together, this is only a distant memory. Webcam funerals are just one of many disruptions imposed by the pandemic, but they have to be one of the most disturbing – they are shaking up the funeral etiquette which is a cultural imperative for the Irish.
But just as FaceTime farewells have become commonplace for families unable to visit dying loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes, online funerals are the new normal. Everyone accepts the need to adopt these funeral practices to prevent the transfer of viruses. Funerals have the potential to be super-propagating events with our urge to kiss, kiss and touch the bereaved.
However, these new rituals of withdrawal are counter-cultural to the Irish tradition.
Public health rules cannot be flouted, but there is no doubt that they leave a scar.
Our age-old funeral habits can be surprisingly upbeat – celebrating a life well lived, hopefully. But it is sad to see these empty churches, these isolated families and these prerecorded auction prayers of distant children and grandchildren. It is painful to see that family members are separated at a time when all their instincts are to come together.
Church authorities and funeral directors have been inventive in organizing socially distanced funerals. But the gathered community is essential to the funeral apparatus – an expression of community solidarity and continuity.
Under level five containment, only 10 people can be present. Most Irish families have more members in their immediate circle, not to mention distant connections, friends, neighbors and coworkers who would naturally be present.
The impromptu habit of people lining the road, well distributed, was a way of mitigating this cultural disruption imposed by public health. But the 5 km travel limit and the Baltic weather interfered with this solution. It’s back to the webcam.
The rhythms of mourning are as old as humanity. They understand the belief that it takes more than a family to bury a lost loved one – the community has a role to play. In Ireland, the community takes this function of paying homage to the dead seriously. It is a universal truth that grievers should not be left alone to suffer. Sadly, many are now left to do just that.
The alternative to virtual funerals is better than nothing, of course, but it offends the sense of what is right in many people. Covid-19 has interfered with the normal procedures by which we put people to rest, suspending a set of time-honored customs that matter to survivors. After all, a funeral isn’t just for the deceased – it’s important for the living.
A cruel corollary of this virus is that when people are most in need of social solidarity, they are forced into isolation. We don’t yet know what long-term impact this could have on grieving families. But researchers who study end-of-life rituals say grieving practices can be crucial for the mental and spiritual health of a bereaved person.
In Ireland we have always taken pride in knowing how to deal with death: we have a healthy acceptance that it occurs in midlife (“you don’t know the day or the hour”) and should be incorporated into it.
As a people, we do not underestimate the ability of the ritual to relieve some of the immediate sting of death. Personally, I will never forget the comfort I took at the sight of the crowds at my parents’ funeral: you realized that you were part of something bigger than one family. This is why funeral celebrations have a dual function, both commemorating the life of the deceased and forging closer bonds within the community.
Today people don’t know how to show their respect, and the collective Irish psyche is grappling with this disruption to our funeral arrangements. The loss of the traditional wake is a particular blow – a pagan custom incorporated into the 21st century with many of its characteristics intact. It is a place where the living and the dead meet, if not on an equal footing because the results are different, at least in a shared space. By eating, drinking, and sharing stories so close to the body, we normalize death.
In novels like Anne Enright’s The meeting and that of Kate O’Brien The anteroom, the short story of John McGahern Country Funeralsl and Alice Milligan’s poem The awakening party, these customs are described in a format that has not changed for centuries. The body stretched out in a room and never left alone, the silent clocks, the covered mirrors, an open window to let the soul fly away – we are following the model of our ancestors as if the digital age had never happened.
In the McGahern story, the Ryan brothers attend their uncle’s funeral on behalf of their mother. She said, “If no one was going to poor Peter’s funeral, God bless him, we would be the topic of conversation in the country for years to come. Funeral assistance is a given, as is the support of the local community at this time.
Other countries are also experiencing a decoupling of funeral customs. Many jurisdictions have restricted the number of people who can attend, with families forbidding both visiting relatives with the disease or coming into contact with their bodies after death.
In India, there were no longer any funeral pyres on the Ganges. In Egypt, the custom of bathing the remains was impossible. In Italy, the army escorted coffins for burial. With Islam, as with Judaism, funerals usually take place within 24 hours, but some families have encountered obstacles in recovering bodies quickly.
Still, it should be noted that flexible solutions are being found. In the United States, they’ve gone beyond online streaming ceremonies to host what can best be described as a drive-through funeral. People drive into parking lots, listening to the services on their car radios and watching them projected onto a screen.
As inventive as they are, these virtual funerals are at the heart of people’s lives. – another injury inflicted by the pandemic.
Once the populations are vaccinated, certain elements of the containment will retain their hold. Working from home, for example. But these new palliative funeral mechanisms should never be allowed to replace the cultural icon of Irish funerals. The poignant character surrounds death and it’s not something to be easily ruled out.
As soon as the virus is under control, our customary rites must be reaffirmed – a tradition as enduring as the Irish funeral cannot and must not go away.