Rude health: A good send off
Nobody wants to end their days on a pauper's black hearse, writes Maurice Gueret, as he ponders the birds and bees
It isn't only gangland funerals that attract murmurs of disapproval from the gentrified parishes of Dublin. There has long been a tendency for posh burghers of our capital city to look down their snooty noses at the use of horses, elaborate floral displays or any sign of glamour amongst the mourning party as they proceed behind the coffin of loved ones.
As with most snobberies, the firmest roots lie buried in ignorance. There are strong cultural reasons why funerals of the less well off may have more 'trappings' than upper-crust obsequies. For centuries the greatest source of family shame in poorer parts of Dublin was not having the money to send their dead off with dignity. Mortality across all classes of society was very high, but the burden of funerals fell most heavily on the poor. Dead children were generally not afforded church services. They were simply boxed at home and carried, light as they usually were, to the graveyard. Adults lived in dread of a pauper's funeral. Some families lived without food simply to keep up payments to burial societies. A coffin was the main essential and the biggest expense. Neighbours would club together to buy a single wreath, or even manufacture one. The South Dublin Union, a workhouse that is now St James's Hospital, had its own windowless black hearse - a plain black box on cart wheels hauled by a single horse. It was known simply as 'the pauper's hearse'. The black hearse could be called out for free in emergency situations and every family in the tenement, street and beyond would know exactly how poor the family of the deceased was. Some folk today may not have much in life, but everyone has a right to be spared indignity in death.
I was writing recently about my ideal sort of nursing home, complete with road frontage, coffee shop, Wifi and so on. I suppose what I was trying to say was that when the day for a kind nurse comes, I'd rather be receiving her care on Henry Street than up the top of a hill on Farmer Henry's former field. We built a lot of greenfield nursing homes here courtesy of tax incentives but I'd like to see new incentives to base future care in real places like villages, towns and cities. Where there might be a shop across the road or a public house or chapel next door. That's the care I want, and if my email sack is to be believed, then I could have a lot of good pals in with me too. One correspondent said I should bite the bullet and build my very own.
Another correspondent, a doctor, has a different solution. She tells me that the whole population of Ireland should be concentrating their minds and bodies on avoidance of nursing homes. Her niche area is sex therapy and she tells me that the best way to avoid cognitive decline in later years is to have plenty of sex. She has all the research done and dusted with feathers to prove it and suggests that we should be spending our time at Mattress Mick's warehouse buying bouncy new beds for the home instead of fretting about which bed might suit best for continuous care. Now for any readers who are already in nursing homes, I suggest you call a meeting of the ethics committee before proceeding further.
I do enjoy a small dose of Richard Dawkins every now and then. The renowned biologist and sceptic has a tendency to infuriate organised religions and enthral fellow scientists in equal measure. Passing the new books trolley at my local library I noticed a shiny copy of Brief Candle in The Dark, a follow-up to his first memoir which finished at the age of 35. There is only so much I want to know about domestic violence in wasp populations, so I confess to dipping in and out of this book instead of consuming it whole. Amongst many old shells it has the odd pearl of wisdom. As a young scientist Dawkins was once invited to a pharma conference in a splendidly over-the-top German castle that included many Nobel prize winners. Sir Hans Krebs, the world's most famous biochemist, was in attendance. Krebs was asked to share his recipe for winning a Nobel prize. He said, "Go into the lab every day at 9am, work all day until 5pm, then go home; and repeat the process for 40 years."
Just an observation, but I have noticed in recent years that we are following the continental trend of being more concerned with feeding neighbourhood birds than poorer nations of the world. The UK spends a quarter of a billion sterling each year on this market, which means we probably fork out enough on our feathered friends to fund a small hospital. Certainly our supermarkets and garden centres are filled with paraphernalia for garden tweeters. I do confess to putting fat balls out for my red robins and little tits in the winter months, but the advertising on these is getting sillier by the month. The latest ones offer "28pc more fat" than standard energy balls for "all year round performance", and a unique 12-ingredient blend, so that "birds will feel a lift." If you believed it you'd almost feel like nibbling at them yourself.
The reason birds like fat balls so much in winter is that berried plants are in short supply. Fat fills the gap, providing energy and a full feeling, just as it does for us. It was no accident that the best Dublin coddle was made with the fattiest rashers. If you want to keep birds hungry and defecating all day in your garden then leave out sugar balls, cake, fluffy jam biscuits, giant nachos and fizzy cola in the bird bath.
Dr Maurice Gueret is editor of the Irish Medical Directory
Sunday Indo Life Magazine