Friday 22 September 2017

A time of fond farewells and comfy coffins

'Standing in the sunshine, her widower looked worn out, yet radiant. He spoke fondly about the funeral, which had been simplicity itself, a civil ceremony that celebrated his beloved's life.' Stock photo: PA
'Standing in the sunshine, her widower looked worn out, yet radiant. He spoke fondly about the funeral, which had been simplicity itself, a civil ceremony that celebrated his beloved's life.' Stock photo: PA

Fiona O'Connell

It was a beautiful May morning when I met a man in this country town whose wife had recently passed away. Though he blinked back tears, he said that he had no regrets. For he had honoured the vows made when his beloved was terminally ill, and truly loved her in both sickness and health.

As her primary carer, he had attended to her needs day-in, day-out for over a decade, never complaining about a cross he willingly bore because of love. It meant his wife enjoyed the all-too-rare privilege nowadays of having control over medication to alleviate her pain. (This may have included several stiff gin and tonics and cigarettes.)

Standing in the sunshine, her widower looked worn out, yet radiant. He spoke fondly about the funeral, which had been simplicity itself, a civil ceremony that celebrated his beloved's life.

Such an informal farewell is still not the norm. Yet in many ways, the attitude was similar in the 1940s, for people were less daunted by death. Like WH Auden's poem Funeral Blues (which was famously recited in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral), the custom then was to stop the clocks and leave the dearly departed alone for a while, to allow them time for a quiet word with God.

Indeed, some folk were so fine with their fate that they kept a coffin in the house in case they died unexpectedly. As an old lady remembers: "T'was nice to have a coffin handy in case you wanted the auld box at short notice."

Through a story recounted by John Fitzgerald in his book about that era, Are We Invaded Yet? suggests that some people were far too comfy around coffins long before their time.

Like the man who developed the habit of dropping into the funeral house at the end of a long night of liquid refreshments. If an open coffin happened to be lying about, he would climb in and doze off, making himself scarce before the undertakers arrived.

All was well with his free board on funeral boards, until he overslept one morning. The earthly administrator for the angel of death found him curled up in the coffin, snoring heavily enough to wake the dead. He decided to play a prank on this imposter. Wrapping himself in a white sheet, he stood over the coffin. "Arise!" he called out. "Arise - it's the last day."

The befuddled boozer opened his eyes to find a white shrouded figure hovering over him in the dimmed room.

"God, what's happening?" he shrieked. "Where am I?"

"Yer in trouble," replied the would-be grim reaper. "Yer late for the feckin' resurrection! I'm taking you off now. Get up and we'll be going - the hearse is outside. Ah, heaven is a lovely place." Clearly, the man wasn't quite ready to swap a nap for full-blown nirvana.

He jumped from the coffin and ran away from the building. They say he never touched a drop of the hard stuff again. Unlike the many who toasted his tee-totalling transformation at his eventual wake.

Sunday Independent

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