Friday 20 July 2018

Stone ceremonies and woodland burials: How more of us are choosing alternative funerals

Traditional Christian funerals remain the norm in Ireland but a growing minority of us are choosing alternative ways to bid farewell to deceased relations and friends. Peter McGuire reports

Back to nature: Colin McAteer, Cnoc Glas, Fanad Head with his willow eco-coffins.
Back to nature: Colin McAteer, Cnoc Glas, Fanad Head with his willow eco-coffins.
Listening: inter faith minister Karen Dempsey who officiates at alternative funeral ceremonies pictured in Staffords funeral home, Portmarnock. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Peter McGuire

Karl's friends went to his favourite places and gathered stones from Donegal's riverbeds. They filled a bucket with the stones and drove them to Dardistown crematorium in Dublin.

Karl's funeral celebrant, interfaith minister Karen Dempsey, invited the hundreds of mourners to take some of the stones. "We asked people, when they were in a place of beauty, and when they felt connected to Karl, to cast their stone and release him back into the universe," says Roslyn, one of Karl's five older siblings. "People brought the stones on their travels and to special places. They've been cast into the lake at Glendalough and the beach at Antibes. People bring them to the beach so Karl can watch the surf. One of them is the foundation stone for a school in Zambia. And people have used them to begin a conversation about mental health; we don't want anyone to go like Karl did."

Karl Collins was only 30 when he died by suicide about a year ago. For his mother Irene, four sisters Aisling, Jennifer, Maria and Roslyn, and brother John, they needed a funeral that would celebrate his life, but they also felt strongly that it had to be a place where they could speak openly about his death.

"As a family, we are absolutely broken by Karl's death," says Maria. "Suicides are often disguised as a 'tragic circumstance' but we wanted to say: 'Talk to someone. Talk about this. We need to invest in mental health services and provide better supports'. We wanted to get that message out there and, with another type of funeral, I don't know if we could have."

In 2015, the Collins family lost their father, Pat, to cancer. For both their father and brother, they didn't want a church funeral.

"We knew Dad wasn't religious like that," says Maria. "I know it can be strange for people who are religious, but we felt it offered us more support, so he had a humanist service (which focused on celebrating Pat's life and remembering him through reflection, story and music).

"We got to play one of his favourite songs, 'Paddy McGinty's Goat' - which is a bit bawdy and probably not appropriate for church - but it summed up Dad's sense of humour."

The Collins family say they have spoken out to honour Karl's memory and to show the devastation that suicide can inflict on families; they point out that his death was a tragic waste which didn't have to happen. They are one of a growing number who are choosing non-religious funerals. Although Christian burial remains, by some distance, the dominant funeral form in Ireland, Mary Cuniffe, president of the Irish Association of Funeral Directors, says that about 15pc of funerals in Dublin are performed by a civil, humanist, interfaith, spiritual or other celebrant, and other funeral directors concur that alternatives are becoming more commonplace.

Listening: inter faith minister Karen Dempsey who officiates at alternative funeral ceremonies pictured in Staffords funeral home, Portmarnock. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Listening: inter faith minister Karen Dempsey who officiates at alternative funeral ceremonies pictured in Staffords funeral home, Portmarnock. Photo: Gerry Mooney

In smaller, subtle ways, our approach to funerals is changing. Where the wake had died out, it is being revived. It's not uncommon to hear families ask mourners to wear bright colours to a funeral but, says Dr Susan Delaney, bereavement services manager with the Irish Hospice Foundation, our move away from wearing black as an outward expression of mourning means that grief isn't always recognised.

This is why the Irish Hospice Foundation have developed a 'bereavement pin' which people can wear to acknowledge their loss and to convey the message that they are grieving; it can also open much-needed conversations.

Increasingly, families want the funeral service to focus on celebrating the person's life. In the Catholic tradition, however, this is anathema: funerals are about the person returning to God through the aid of the congregation's prayers. In recent years, this has occasionally caused tensions, with some families who rarely, if ever, attend Mass turning to the familiarity of the church when death comes only to find that they can't play the secular music of their choice or eulogise about the deceased.

Priests often don't know the family on a personal basis, as they may have in the past. Officially, church rules don't allow eulogies; in practice, most priests will quietly allow them. Father Alan Hilliard is a Dublin priest with over 30 years of service. "I remember in parishes many years ago, there could be three coffins in the church on a Saturday morning and not much sense that there was a funeral.

"Today, funerals that are deeply embedded into the faith tradition can be very different to what they see in films and soap operas.

"That said, people do have the choice to come to church or not, and I've never felt that anyone was disrespectful in a place of worship. Sometimes a family may have a different faith than, say, their late mother who regularly attended Mass, but I have to remember it is about the faith of the person who died. Ultimately, a funeral is about ministering in the face of loss."

The natural approach

Colin McAteer was born into death. He grew up in Fanad Head, on the northern tip of Donegal, surrounded on three sides by water. His grandfather was a funeral director, his father is still one, and he works as one himself. About 10 years ago, he started to make willow coffins which are more natural and environmentally friendly than traditional coffins.

"It wasn't a new idea," he says. "Willow coffins are some of the oldest ever unearthed." Demand took off. Most rural undertakers are part-time, as there are not enough deaths in small communities, so this has been an important source of income for McAteer's family.

However, it's his venture in Wexford which is really starting to change how we think about funerals. "Time and again, people would say the same words to me: 'bury me under a tree'. Simple, normal and natural. So I came up with the idea of a woodland graveyard."

Gradually, Woodbrook, a burial site in Killane, Co Wexford is being transformed into a natural woodland. Instead of rows of gravestones, people return to the earth and the plants. They encourage wildlife by not cutting the grasses. Deer, insects and birds are among the animals reclaiming the land. Native Irish trees are being replanted and wild flower seeds are being sown.

"The bodies contribute to the fertility of the soil," says McAteer. "There are over 100 souls in Woodbrook now, and at least 300 more who have paid for their plot with us. They come from all walks of life, all religions and none."

Separately, as a funeral director, McAteer says he has done "quite a few" non-religious services in north Donegal. "It's new to some of us but we listen to the families."

An inclusive funeral

For Karl's funeral, the Collins family wanted to show his nieces and nephews that he wasn't well, that he hadn't really wanted to die and that he had a great life.

"Karl was so much fun," laughs Jennifer through tearful eyes. "Oh, he lit up every room. A few years ago, he told his niece that he had climbed a mountain, plucked the tail of a phoenix and embedded it into the wand he was giving her. His nieces and nephews just idolised him. He lived life intensely and he loved to make people happy; he was always thinking of something special."

John says he is reminded of his little brother every day. He misses Karl desperately and mourns all the plans they had together: all the surfing they were going to do, all the rocks they had yet to climb. Jennifer and Maria took the stones on the Camino de Santiago a few months after Karl died, and laid one at a clearing that looked over the hills, along with some of their brother and father's ashes.

For ordained interfaith minister Karen Dempsey, her work is about being open to all beliefs and none, and above all, being inclusive. She invited the congregation to pause and let their emotions out. She spoke about Karl's relationships, about his love for his family and how he taught his nieces and nephews to skateboard, BMX and surf. She allowed the family to play songs that Karl loved and that meant something to him, including 'Society' by Eddie Vedder which is about the pressures society places on us all, and a saxophone recording which Karl made a few weeks before his death. "We wanted to be able to talk about the person we loved, and Karen came and listened to us," says John. "She cried with us and laughed at our stories. She wanted to know everything about Karl, and she knew our names and got a real sense of his spirituality."

Funeral directors and celebrants say that religious funerals are the default where the deceased person has not expressed their wishes - although it should be noted that most Irish people would still choose a religious service.

Bereavement services manager Dr Susan Delaney says that the funeral is a vital ritual for those left behind, and that we should not be afraid to talk about the type of funeral that we want.

"We do need more guidance around our options, and families need to be able to choose what is right for them.

"If they know what the deceased would have wanted, they are keen to follow their wishes. We've recently held some 'death cafés' where people can talk about what they want and the feedback has been so positive. Life is for living, and I'm not suggesting we sit and talk about death all day, but it is a conversation we should have at least once with someone. Writing down our wishes can bring comfort to the people left behind when the time comes."

The Samaritans are available around the clock for people suffering distress, upset or suicidal thoughts. Freephone: 116123 or see

The Irish Hospice Foundation provides a range of supports, including bereavement supports and 'Think Ahead', a booklet where people can write down their healthcare and funeral preferences. See

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