Sunday 24 September 2017

Death of a ritual

It's been silenced to a whisper in the Anglo Saxon world but the English could learn alot about death from Ireland, the last bastion of the wake, writes Kevin Toolis, as he recalls his own father's funeral on Achill

Ancient rituals: Kevin's father, Sonny, with his daughter Angela, sister Mary and niece Ellen, haymaking in Dookinella on Achill in the 1960s. Photo: ManyRivers Films
Ancient rituals: Kevin's father, Sonny, with his daughter Angela, sister Mary and niece Ellen, haymaking in Dookinella on Achill in the 1960s. Photo: ManyRivers Films
Kevin Toolis on the shore at Dookinella. Photo: Many Rivers Films

Instinctively, the English pull the curtains, dim the lights and lower their voices lest the sight of the dead or the dying obtrude into the world of the living. Unless they are medical professionals, the vast, vast majority of the English will never see, never mind touch, a dead body in their entire lives.

In a world where everyone dies, the dead have been banished.

Death has a louder voice in Ireland, but even here, in the last bastion of the ancient rite of the wake, the blinding of what could be termed the Western Death Machine grows by the hour to diminish the ancient bond between the living and the dead.

Fewer and fewer of our dead repose at their residence in an old-fashioned wake but are instead are carried to the grave on a far narrower road. 'House Private', two-hour visitation slots in the local funeral home, 'family flowers only please' and 'donations to', once the sole constipated prerogative of the Daily Telegraph's death notices, are all now recognisable marks within the modern Irish funeral tradition.

Waking the dead was still common in all European cultures until 200 years ago, but died away as the power of the Western Death Machine grew through hospitals, industrialisation and urbanisation to separate the dying from the living. For some reason, the power of the wake has always remained stronger, more embedded, amongst the Celts.

The wake is more than an Irish cultural icon. It is an ancient way of dealing with our mortality, a wisdom that we lose at our peril, and one of the oldest rites of humanity dating back long before the fall of Troy in the 8th Century BC.

At its heart are the oldest teachings of humanity; how to be brave in irreversible sorrow, how to share this mortal life with the dying, the dead, the bereaved; how to face your own death; and how to teach your children to face their deaths.

When I was seven, my mother, on the island of our forebears in Mayo, took me to my first wake to see the sight of the dead and, with her encouragement, touch the dead man's flesh.

I still remember that first, visceral, ice-cube-in-a-rubber-glove jolt touch of the stone-like corpse. Today, most modern Irish parents would be horrified at the thought of taking their own children on a similar death-training expedition. But my mother, Mary Gallagher, was enacting a rite from within the wake, drawing on its far older wisdom of taming death in a communal embrace.

My mother's aim, as unconsciously passed down to her through the island generations, was not to frighten me but to unfrighten me by showing me the very ordinariness of the dead. The old dead man in the box was nothing to be afraid of.

Waking the dead was first mentioned in Western literature in Homer's 8th-century BC war poem 'The Iliad', about the battles between the Greeks and the Trojans over the city of Troy.

After the Trojan king Priam recovers the body of his dead son Hector from his enemy Achilles, he returns to the city only to find the way blocked by the Trojan women who wail and keen in the streets all around the chariot of the fallen Trojan prince. Priam orders the women aside, saying "they will have their fill of wailing" after he has taken Hector home and cleansed his body in preparation for the funeral. Hector is waked for nine nights. The Trojans feast and hold funeral games and then ritually burn his corpse on the 10th day. And their war starts again the next day.

Aside from Hector's cremation, the same elements are integral - and still recognisable - within the Irish wake tradition; open public sorrow, feasting and all-night vigils.

As late as the 1950s, the mná caointe, hired-in professional female mourners like the Trojan women, were common in country funerals in rural Ireland. Nor has keening entirely died out, merely taken a new form.

It is not a coincidence that at a traditional wake, the chief mourners are generally dominated by women who gather close to the corpse and unleash their emotion in tears as the men of the family gather at the back and awkwardly look on.

The same scene was painted in 2500 BC by a Greek artist Gela the Painter on terracotta tiles in Sicily. Nothing has really changed at the core of the wake for the last 3,000 years.

When my own father, Sonny, died on the island, his sisters, daughters and nieces enacted the same ancient roles, a chorus that was the focus of our grieving but also a promise of a future, a fertility rite. From amongst these women, newborn sons and daughters would in time overcome the wound of this particular death.

My father's wake, like every wake, was not just about him. A wake is a communal rite that binds the living, the bereaved and the dead together in a set of prescribed rituals aimed at restoring order between the natural and supernatural world. Dating long before Christianity, the wake's pagan origins are designed to bring closure by laying the dead to rest where they can no longer disturb the living. When the body leaves the house, it is common in Mayo to briefly rest the coffin on two household chairs, say a few prayers, splash Holy Water against the side of the house and then lift the coffin into the hearse. The chairs are then kicked over.

I have yet to meet a mourner who can explain the purpose of the chair kicking. But if you asked an anthropologist, they would tell you that what you are seeing is known as a rite of reversal. The Holy Water and the chair overturnings are the creation of supernatural barriers to prevent the dead from ever returning to disturb the living within the house. For the bereaved, the wake can be exhausting and yet also therapeutic.

Although it can feel clichéd, the repeated handshake grip and 'Sorry for your trouble' mantra is a physical, psychological and communal declaration that you've lost someone important and that they are never coming back.

This aspect of the wake is the greatest antidote to what the American writer Joan Didion describes as that form of 'magical thinking', false belief, that your dead husband/wife is somehow coming back from the grave, and death is reversible.

To be truly human is to bear the burden of our own mortality and to strive, in grace, to help others carry theirs: sometimes lightly and sometimes courageously.

Rather than blinding ourselves by denying death's existence, a wake, the public display of a corpse, and the ­support of your community, remains the last best hope, and faith of ­humanity, that together we can overcome the wound, and joy, of being mortal.

My Father's Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is out now

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