Tuesday 22 October 2019

Life after mass

Jacqueline Kavanagh

I've never been much of a churchgoer. Like many of my generation, apathy was the driving force in my teens, a time when everything on the planet -- other than The Smiths' lyrics and hanging out with spotty losers -- was deemed 'booorrring'. And while I may have altered my opinions an awful lot since those days, including my feelings towards parsnips, broccoli and authority figures, I do still find mass, well, a little boring.

The one major exception to this lack of Godliness has always been the annual Blessings of the Graves. Since childhood, it's held a special place in my otherwise heathen heart. I've always thought of it as the highlight of the church's social calendar; the religious gig of the year, like Slane for Catholics.

I remember as a child being dumbstruck at how a normally deathly quiet country graveyard could vibrate with life for that one day. How the coming together of generations of families transformed the graveyard from a place associated with sadness and separation into an amphitheatre of celebration, reunion and shared memories.

Everyone was there: the familiar faces of the elderly, looking withered and crumpled like last month's wreaths; proud parents next to their teenage children, now taller than them; new mums fussing over babies, worrying how they'll get their expensive buggy through the graves. And me.

Every year as the sun beamed down, I'd stand on my grandparents' grave, mesmerised that so much would be going on around me -- and all during mass!

At no other event on the church calendar could I watch young lads in their ill-fitting nylon suits pinch the decaying flowers from the 'unloved' graves and race them in the stream next to the church. Or giggle as wasps tormented the old men, who'd wave their caps like fans for the entire mass. Or overhear mothers-in-law chastising their sons' new wives for wearing stilettos. 'Does she think it's a fashion show?' Or witness toddlers shoving the fake emerald gravel from the 'posh' graves down their nappies. Or listen to the gossip about 'ya wan' back from America, who'd clearly decided to wear the wreath on her head rather than putting it on the grave.

And every year I'd wait expectantly for the speakers to screech angrily in objection at the choir who made the crows sound tuneful.

The one thing that dampened my spirits was lifting my eyes to the 'new part' of the graveyard. My clan came together for my grandparents, old aunts and uncles, whose passing has been eased somewhat by the soothing balm of time. For those in the 'new part', whose graves were still long mounds of dark soil, enough time had not yet passed.

I never dared to stare too long at those graves, for those families, who still held each other as if their bodies were broken, didn't notice the choir, the flowers or the emerald stones. They were still blinded by pain.

Being abroad meant I missed the Blessing of the Graves for many years. But a while back I decided, now that I ate broccoli and had stopped worshipping at the altar of 80s rock music, that maybe it was time to return.

And so I went out and bought a terracotta pot, some oasis and several bunches of flowers whose names I couldn't pronounce. I spent hours on my floral extravaganza, which, to be honest, looked like an overgrown garden struck by a tornado.

That next morning we were late -- I'd forgotten you had to park 56 miles away from the graveyard unless you turned up two hours early. As memories started to flood back, I was determined not to miss too much and started to run. Just as I reached the gates, I fell, smashing my pot, ripping my trousers and snapping my sandal.

Mass was almost over by the time I'd hobbled through the graveyard. Standing on the grave next to ours was a young girl who looked at me and smiled. I knew what she was thinking: where else during mass would you see a crazy-looking woman carrying a smashed, flowerless oasis, with only one sandal and holes in her trousers? Oh, yes, the Blessing of the Graves.

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