If you are only going for the 'day out', stay away from funerals
Published 01/10/2016 | 02:30
I was standing on the veranda of a hotel near Mullingar a couple of years ago looking out over Lough Ennell when two Englishmen came out for a smoke and I heard one say to the other: "I was talking to a guy in there - he said he's at the 'afters' of a funeral, he said funerals are far better fun in Ireland than weddings."
At the time I thought it was an amusing observation, but after an experience last week I'm beginning to wonder if Irish funerals have entirely lost their solemnity.
This thought occurred rather starkly outside a rather posh church in Dublin 4. The deceased was a good man with what might now be called a 'modern family', wife, their children, and the partner he'd spent his last years with after his marriage ended.
The hearse made its way into the grounds of the church and there were the inevitable delays as people commiserated with the wife and the partner and school friends comforted the younger children in front of the coffin.
But while this was going on, you could hear the raucous sounds of old friends, just outside the church gates, greeting each other, laughing loudly and generally engaging in unbridled banter, their voices, guffaws and general carry-on blaring through to the bereaved family and friends trying to maintain a semblance of dignity before entering the church.
These were so-called 'professional' people, well-heeled, well-to-do and, I thought, should have known better. Did they for a minute consider the loved-ones of the deceased, who were in mourning? Were they there to honour the dear departed? Or were they there simply to meet friends, be seen and, unfortunately, heard?
They sounded like they were attending a football match, or going into a concert, not at the funeral of man who had died relatively young after a long battle with cancer.
Why do people go to a funeral if they have no sense of the occasion, or empathy with the person who has died and the family left behind?
These people obviously did not intend to be disrespectful but they certainly showed a complete lack of respect for the occasion.
Have we, Irish people in particular, lost the essence of what it's about with this idea that a funeral is "a great day out" and a celebration rather than mourning?
We sometimes wonder why in England it takes weeks, sometimes months, to have a funeral and often they are by invitation only. We condescendingly compare these small gatherings with the "big Irish funeral" where people who possibly never met the deceased, but have a connection, however tenuous, come to show their sympathy.
That's all very fine, but in this communal show of sympathy are we trampling on the grief of those who did really care about the departed? Has every occasion to be turned into an 'olé olé' event, where the actual reason for our presence is forgotten.
A few years ago, a neighbour of ours died and when his removal came to an end, an eminent judge stood at the altar and invited the faithful to drinks in a nearby pub patronised by the deceased, who was, as they say, 'fond of a drop'. He had directed the judge, his executor, to have drinks after both the removal and the funeral.
That might be a little unusual, but nowadays it is custom and etiquette for the family to invite the entire congregation back to a hotel or café bar after the graveyard for drinks and a sit-down meal, the cost of which may be crippling for less well-off families, but is now generally regarded as part of the funeral rite.
The comparison between weddings and funerals is obvious, as both are now considered a 'day out' by many people.
The benefits of attending a funeral are obvious - you don't have to dress up, once the eulogy (or eulogies) are out of the way in the church there are no speeches to interrupt the general revelry, no presents to be bought, and you can leave when you've had enough - instead of having to sit around at a wedding for hours unable to hear yourself talk.
Recently the Healy-Raes were criticised for attending or sending representatives to funerals of people they didn't know. But politicians of all persuasions have demeaned themselves by going to funerals of people they didn't know - but at least they do so with respect and dignity.
Before attending the next funeral, people should think of why they are there and at least remember the person in the coffin and the dignity of the service they are about to attend. There's always plenty of time for bonhomie in the bar afterwards.