The clocks run differently in the country. Like thousands across the nation, I traipsed back to my roots over Christmas - part of the annual migration from urban shoeboxes to the wide open spaces where our youthful minds were made. And when those geographical borderlines between town and country are crossed, we are quickly reminded that talk and news are still the most treasured currencies in the rustic heartland.
In the midst of topics ranging from the weather ("mighty, thank God") to hospital waiting lists ("a pure disgrace") and Donald Trump ("they'll never give him the nuclear codes, will they?"), returning townies are left in no doubt about the subject that supersedes everything in a normal country day. "The death has occurred..." are words that bring entire valleys, glens and villages to a halt as the daily litany of the expired is emitted over the airwaves. More arresting than terrorist outrages or plane crashes, 'the deaths' are when rural Ireland pauses for remembrance of lives that are no more.
For rural radio stations, the death notices are mile-markers punctuating the progress of any given day, featuring up to six time slots, easily outnumbering farming updates and weather forecasts. Having likely heard the news on the grapevine the night before, people still cluster around their sets awaiting confirmation of the inevitable reality of a name that will henceforth be recognised only in the past tense. The title is read out, heads nod in rueful recognition, and the weighty discussion of whether to attend the removal or funeral, or both, is debated.
Ireland has long had a fascination with death notices, whether newspaper, radio or online - an ingrained cultural hunger for the bare facts combined with clues to the cause. As a social roadmap for public grief and sympathy, they are symbols of our healthy attitude towards the final journey - as long as it's someone else's, that is.
Composing the perfect death notice is a task that comes to many of us, and one where the ancient dictum 'God is always in the detail' applies with a vengeance. Faced with a limited word count, the task of arranging an appropriate expression of sorrow combined with the essential amount of information is an art form dictated by a confined space populated by a multitude of competing names. Familiarity is the guiding hand of articulation, with 'peacefully', 'dearly loved', 'sadly missed' and the grammatically dubious 'deeply regretted by' all part of the accepted bereavement lexicon. Even the manner of one's passing can be gleaned by the use of a signal adverb, with 'suddenly' and 'tragically' regular entrants, bested only by the emotionally distraught 'taken too soon'. Presenting the essential funeral details, death notices also allow for a degree of detective work as to the cause, with phrases like 'a brief illness,' and 'no flowers' parsed and dissected as another cup of tea is poured.
Like taxes, death is a universal and inescapable fact - a reality that prompted author Marilyn Johnson to pen a book on the topic. Admitting which section of the paper she always turns to first each morning, 'The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasure of Obituaries' charts her lifelong fascination with humanity's last public offering. "The paper comes each morning and never fails to deliver news of the important dead as I arrange my cup of tea and prop up my slippers. Obituaries are history as it is happening. Was he a success or a failure, lucky or doomed, older than I am or younger? Did she know how to live? I shake out the pages. Tell me the secret of a good life!" Regardless of whether our hunger for death notices is born of genuine concern or simple curiosity, it will always be up there with property and hanky-panky as national pastimes.
Every man's life ends the same way, as Hemingway observed, it is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one from another. Ronald Regan's words to America's schoolchildren after the 1986 Challenger space shuttle tragedy was a suitable obituary for all of us who walk life's uneven road: "I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery, part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons.
"The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave."