Saturday 24 February 2018

Katie Byrne: blessed are those who mourn

What - and who - to expect when you're arranging a funeral

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

The parish priest paid a visit the day before my father's funeral. He wanted to discuss the readings; divvy out the prayers of the faithful; and, above all, get a sense of the man we had lost, piece by piece, to dementia.

Father O'Reilly - let's call him that - got straight down to business.

There would be two readings, any number of intercession prayers - three is the average - and we could detail all the gifts that we'd like to offer up in an email to him that evening.

This all sounded much too straightforward for our liking.

So it's three readings altogether? Is anyone writing this down? Who's making the tea? What about the responsorial psalm?

"Do you want sugar, Father?" asked my sister, who performed something in between a curtsey and a genuflection when she came back into the room carrying a cup and saucer.

Our local priest was doing his best to offer us direction, but at times like this, nobody has the map. We had lost our bearings and true north was now the whistle of a kettle.

Ostensibly, we were organising a funeral. In reality, we were floating in the ether, as the man we adored reposed in interminable stillness in a coffin across the hallway.

The entire family was in attendance for Father O'Reilly's visit, but we were all elsewhere. The vases were brimming with white roses and peace lilies, but the people in that room had been winded by the abrupt finality of death.

I can't remember much of my conversation with Father O'Reilly. In truth, I spent the better part of that morning trying to find my shoes.

However, I know that I was put in charge of the order of service, and my remit wasn't reserved to prayers and hymns.

Father O'Reilly lowered his voice to deliver the next part of his pre-funeral sermon.

"We also advise families not to announce where they are holding the afters in the church. We tell them to wait until they are by the graveside."

"Why's that?" asked one of my brothers.

Father O'Reilly didn't like what he had to tell us next.

"You've heard of ambulance chasers, I'm sure?"


"Unfortunately, we have funeral chasers too."

"Funeral crashers?!" laughed my sister.

"I'm afraid so," said Father O'Reilly, who, I should have mentioned, wasn't wearing his clerical shirt or collar. The off-duty attire made him look more undercover garda than Messenger of God, and his thick black notebook only added to the impression.

"Are they in it for the sandwiches, Father?"

"We don't know," he answered. "But we know who they are." And it was on that note of intrigue that he took his leave.

I was on the lookout for these opportunistic mourners as the cortège slowly crunched into the church car park the following day.

"Funeral crasher!" I announced as I saw a biker come cruising up beside us.

"That's my friend from work," said my brother. "Very good of him to come."

"Funeral crasher," I whispered to another brother as we filed into the pews.

He looked in the direction of my gaze. "That's my friend's mum," he whispered back.

My investigations continued even as my family grew exasperated.

There was a woman to my left praying with a suspicious level of devotion. Was she a funeral crasher? And what about the man standing shiftily outside the confession box? Was he here to offer his condolences or eat our egg-mayonnaise sandwiches?

I stole a glance behind me. Dunbar's number had been exceeded. There were faces I hadn't seen in years and faces I had seen only yesterday. Old school friends. New work colleagues.

Towards the back of the church, I spotted a friend I had fallen out with a couple of years ago. Closed coffins mend rifts with a predictability that makes you wonder why we don't get on with it sooner…

I looked back at the sea of faces again. Even the people I didn't recognise were pillars of support.

Maybe one of them was a funeral crasher, but what matter? Death is a human experience and loss is more than enough to have in common.

The ties that bind us tighten at times like this and even relative strangers begin to feel like life-long friends.

To paraphrase Yeats, there were no funeral crashers here, only friends we hadn't yet met. And there were more than enough sandwiches to go around.

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