Covid 19 has changed the way we mourn our dead, but it cannot do away with our need for a sense of community when we grieve
Is this our new way of dying? Standing apart?
Standing apart on roadsides watching hearses drive by. Standing apart in church grounds as the over-spill from socially-distanced church funerals. Standing apart, too, in graveyards, watching coffins interred in earth around no more than a huddle of mourners. And never ever shaking the hand of the bereaved to offer our sorrow?
The pandemic has ruptured a definitive marker of Irish culture, the open rituals of the Irish way of death, the wake, the gathering in of neighbours and community at funerals.
And given us all a glimpse of how death was already ordered in England, the United States and most of Western Europe, long before the world had heard of the corona virus.
In the grip of that Western Death Machine the dead don’t die, they disappear. Disappear from hospital wards when they stop breathing into forbidding hospital mortuaries. And then disappear further into the arms of undertakers and long-delayed burials or cremations which only a handful of mourners ever attend. And where it is rare for anyone amongst the living to ever see, never mind touch, their dead.
My own family come from Achill Island in Mayo but I grew up in Scotland and so have experience of both the Irish and the Anglo-Saxon way of death.
In Achill, my mother took me to my first wake when I was seven, encouraging me to touch the corpse “to make me less afraid” as black-scarved women passed round plates of snuff and old men in flat caps sipped warm bottles of Guinness. Even today on the island, the graves of the dead are dug by volunteers and the coffin carried there on the shoulders of family and neighbours. And wakes, albeit now confined to close family, go on.
In the wake, the dead are and were nothing special. There on display in the open coffin, sallow-skinned, their hands knitted around rosary beads, as the conversations of the living rose and fell around them. In Achill Irish, there is even a word, prumsái, to describe the craic, the feasting and flirting that went on between teenagers at a good wake.
In England, death has an altogether different form. Most people die in hospital or in a hospice and having a ‘home funeral’, a wake, is almost impossible. Without the right paperwork, you will never get your dead grandfather released from the hospital mortuary.
Death is the territory of professionals, doctors and undertakers who negotiate on your behalf for the next cremation slot, usually a month away, in the council-run crematorium. The gap between death and burial can stretch out for months. Grief and mourning must be parked to await its proper bureaucratic appointment. The very idea of showing a child a corpse would be regarded as some form of psychological abuse. Something out of a horror movie.
But even as the Western world has fled the sight of a corpse, the trauma over grief and death anxiety has multiplied. Grief has now become so toxic it is claimed that the very experience of bereavement can provoke post-traumatic stress disorder and further illness. And another army of professionals, bereavement counsellors, has been unleashed to cure something as old and as familiar as mortality.
I spent decades of my life encountering death in wars, famines and plagues as a reporter and film-maker. I saw children starve to death in Sudan, bodies pulled from bombed-out ruins in Gaza, and Aids patients die by the hour in hospitals in Malawi. But the further I travelled into the land of death, the more I saw the value of that ancestral way of dying that I first experienced as a child in Achill, embodied in the Irish wake. The best form of therapy for grief and loss yet invented.
The wake remains one of the oldest rites of humanity, older than the fall of Troy and mentioned as far back as the Babylonian epics dating from 2500 BC, and is still one of life’s great lessons. When confronted with a corpse of someone we love, we are drawn back into the mystery of our own mortality.
How can the being we loved, our mother, our lover, our child, be there still in the flesh and yet be so absent? It’s like turning the key in your favourite car only to discover you are sitting in a useless lump of metal. But that body, those remains, are still part of the being you loved, there and not-there, at the same time. The dead.
This contradiction between the Living Us and Dead Them is the very epicentre of all human civilisation spawning our eternal quest for eternal life and every religion, holy book, priesthood, temple and synagogue known to man. And shaping too the course of human history with its endless religious clashes and wars, the persecutions of heretics, over which God and which deathless heaven shall rule on earth.
The sight of our dead remains the true existential marker of our own humanity. Do we recognise them, the dead, and ourselves, as part of the same mortal community? Just as human, just as ordinary, just as fallible and just as worthy of respect as our own lives?
Or do we see them as something Other, apart, whose fate is indifferent to our own and of no consequence, like the strangers we glimpse on the evening news before turning back to our own immediate concerns?
My journeys in and near death, my own and the death of others, led me to write a book, Nine Rules to Conquer Death, which distils down the ancient wisdom of the Irish wake into a few explicit rules, some of which may seem contradictory. Like how our lives would be terrible if we did not die. But which also allow us to make sense of our universe.
In the end, Covid or no Covid, we will stand together in the face of death as the Irish have done in the rite of the wake, or we will fall apart as individuals in the Western Death Machine. We will experience death as part of a community or alone, grieving, as a mere handful of mourners.
Plagues come and go and the Irish wake will return, but only if we resist the far more dangerous encroachment of the Western Death Machine and remember, like our ancestors, the value of facing death together in the Irish wake.
Kevin Toolis is a Bafta-award winning film-maker and writer. His new book ‘Nine Rules to Conquer Death’ is out now