Life

Sunday 25 August 2019

The rites (and wrongs) of the modern Irish funeral

Debate is raging about funeral etiquette after a Cork priest urged mourners to ditch the beer and cigarettes in favour of more 'appropriate' offertory gifts. Kirsty Blake Knox reports

Fr Walsh said flowers would be more appropriate than packets of cigarettes or cans of beer
Fr Walsh said flowers would be more appropriate than packets of cigarettes or cans of beer

The Irish are famously good at throwing a funeral, but how we say goodbye to our loved ones is a-changing.

This week, what constitutes an appropriate altar gift came into question when Fr Tomás Walsh of Gurranabraher parish on the north side of Cork advised mourners to stop offering "appalling" items such as detergent and remote controls to the altar.

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Biodegradable wicker coffins are becoming more popular
Biodegradable wicker coffins are becoming more popular

"Bringing things such as a can of beer, a packet of cigarettes, a remote control, a mobile phone or a football jersey does not tell us anything uplifting about the person who has died," he said. He added that the items should be more reflective of the beauty of life (read: less John Player Blue, more rosary beads).

"Surely items such as a flower, a family photograph, a prayer book or rosary reveals far more about the person who has died," Fr Walsh continued.

His comments sparked debate: some rallied behind him and said bringing a GAA jersey up was highly disrespectful, others thought if it reflects the individual's life and likes, then what's the harm? Either way - the etiquette around funerals has changed considerably in recent years.

Motorists rarely give a funeral cortège right of way anymore, keening seems confined to the Abbey stage and even wakes seem to be less raucous. This may be down to a shift in religious faith.

Irish funeral directors estimate that 10pc of the nearly 30,000 funerals conducted annually across the country are now non-religious. The number of humanist funerals are also increasing, with 122 taking place last year.

Moving away from Catholic services inevitably means that the structure and mourning process has changed. According to Fanagans Funeral Directors, funerals have become more "bespoke" and "pared back" with people opting for one-day ceremonies - with the funeral and removal taking place in quick succession - and cremations over burials.

"The whole attitude is different," said David Fanagan, Director of Fanagans. "It doesn't have to be sack cloths, ashes and a long face. Funerals are a celebration of life. People are living longer, so it's important to remember everything they've done and achieved."

With all this change, it's a good time to explore the new parameters of the modern Irish funeral.

Family-led services

Funerals used to be led by a priest or minister who often delivered a very profound but not very personal assessment of the individual's life. Nowadays, more Irish people are opting for family-led services, with relatives deciding the song selection and readings.

Joe Armstrong, a humanist celebrant living in Dublin welcomes this change.

"More often than not, the celebrant or priest won't know the individual as well as the chief mourners," he said. "A good ceremony is about celebrating the life of the person who died and the memories of those present."

And the family tend to be the people best placed to do this.

"You want the person at the back of the church who didn't know them that well to have a sense of who this person was, and a sense of the people who loved them," added Armstrong.

Requested dress code

Wearing head to foot black and mourning clothes are a thing of a past. However, requested dress codes are increasing. Often families will encourage mourners to arrive wearing an item of clothing that meant a great deal to the individual, or arrive in their favourite colour. At journalist Lyra McKee's funeral, her mother asked mourners to wear Harry Potter outfits, and when comedian Ken Dodd died, hundreds lined the streets dressed as 'Diddy Men' as a mark of respect.

Graham Brown, organiser of the Ireland's Funeral Times trade show, says dress code requests are more common now. "We will often get families asking those attending to wear bright colours; I think it ties in with the emphasis on celebration and the increasing number of secular services."

Final carbon footprint

An increasing number of people are thinking about their environmental 'final footprint' and how to deal with their mortal remains in an ecologically friendly way. Wicker and cardboard coffins have been increasing in popularity here - Irish company Green Coffins reported a 20pc increase in sales year on year.

Elsewhere, people have started planting memorial trees instead of buying plastic wreaths, and using biodegradable urns. Natural burial grounds, set in nature and surrounded by wildlife, are a cost effective and eco-conscious option.

At Woodbrook Natural Burial Grounds, a single plot is €950 and allows people to bury their loved ones under trees or by babbling brooks.

Celebratory songs

Airs and hymns carry huge emotional resonance and while many families retain some of those songs in their service, hearing a modern day pop song is commonplace these days. At Brendan Grace's funeral, his coffin entered the church while 'A Dublin Saunter' played. According to uilleann piper Eamonn Walsh - who plays at numerous funerals - families feel more confident requesting alternative pieces of music.

"People don't rely on the religious pieces as heavily anymore. They're more adventurous. The most requested pieces I am asked to play are 'Raglan Road' and 'Gabriel's Oboe' from the 1986 film The Mission," he said.

Screen time and live streaming

Family photographs being projected on to screens is an effective way to pay tribute to the deceased. "Mount Jerome Cemetery in Dublin has a state of the art system and it can add a very personal touch," said David Fanagan of Fanagans Funeral Directors.

There are also options for streaming a funeral for family members unable to attend. Irish company Funerals Live record the funeral service and make it available within a few hours through a secure online portal.

No 'fire brigade' element

The introduction of embalming has made a huge difference to the speed with which funerals take place. It slows things down. "There's no fire brigade element," said David Fanagan. "Embalming means we can wait a few days and aren't racing against the clock."

Before embalming, the ways to keep a body looking fresh were fairly basic - ice packs were placed in coffins and Bibles were put under the chin to keep mouths closed. Thankfully, those days are long gone.

"Embalming is really helpful for those with family abroad," said Cyril Gantley of the Irish Division of the British Institute of Embalmers. "The family can wait for them to return so they can pay their final respects."

Irish Independent

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