Be forewarned. This post is lengthy.
My grandmother died on Easter weekend. She was a remarkable woman who I admired quite a bit. She had many characteristic I would like to have some day. She faced quite a few hardships in her life which is to be expected when you live to be 87. Over the last 20 years, she lost her sister, her two brothers and toughest of all, her two sons. As much as these losses no doubt saddened her, she never lost her appetite for life. She was off traveling at every opportunity and loved gadgets and technology. I only recently learned that she did a computer course just a few years ago. She refused to do the beginners course because she “already knew how to turn on the computer” as she put it. She was also regularly emailing and skypeing and of course had to have a smart phone! She was bright and inquisitive and I suspect she would have lived another 20 years or more if not for the cancer that killed her. Even after weeks of barely being able to eat and throwing up everything she did manage to choke down, she was still talking about attending her granddaughter’s upcoming wedding. She also insisted on replacing her hall carpet the week she was to die. She was too weak to even get out of bed to see the carpet after it had been laid but even that couldn't curb her interest. Only death was going to stop her or even slow her down. She didn’t once breathe a self-pitying word, her only comment on her impending death was “I had a good run”. No amount of misfortune could drag her down. Truely an indomitable spirit.
The day of her death and the unofficial wake.
She died on Good Friday and was to be buried on Easter Sunday, a symmetry that delighted the Christians present. I arrived at my grandmother’s house at about 2pm on Friday. She had died about two hours prior. Two of my three aunts were already there, the third was arriving from England the following day. My aunts and my mother were devastated by the loss. My grandfather was stoic to the point of my wondering if he had really accepted at all what had happened, but then people in their eighties have a familiarity with death and take it more in stride than younger people less accustomed to it. Perhaps it was a bit of both. It is fair to say that I never feel as useless as I do in a situation like that. My mother often comes to me for advice and she tells me that I have a knack for making her feel better when things are getting to her. In this scenario I have nothing to offer but my presence. In many ways I think that is mostly what is needed but I can offer no platitudes or hopes of better places. The best I could do on that score was to keep my opinions to myself.
I don’t see the finality of death as such a terrible thing anymore but there is simply no way to convey such a philosophy at such a time. It is difficult to convey at the best of times. My mother was clinging to the hope that her two dead brothers would be there to greet her mother. I know she would have wanted me to confirm this hope but she knew I couldn’t. Even if I had, she would have known it for a lie. I was just glad that she felt comfortable expressing the wish to me. I have not always been so philosophical in my appraisal of religious views and my views are well known to her. She also mentioned that she wants to go and see a medium in a few weeks. I don’t think she has any strong belief in either the religious side or the medium side of things but she so desperately wants someone to confirm that her lost loved ones are reunited in another world that she is willing to try anything. I had some trouble holding my tongue on that on that one. I just hope she can keep it to a single session if she goes ahead with it.
Whenever you are aware that someone else’s grief is much greater than your own, it is hard not to feel useless. Added to this is the god awful boredom, which you feel shit for feeling, and general ill-ease of the whole thing. For all of Friday, my brothers and I and one of my cousins sat or stood about all day. Sandwiches and tea where everywhere, provided by my devout aunt’s in-laws and some neighbors; all of whom acted like a well drilled military force. I shudder to think how many sandwiches were constructed and chickens sliced and the number of cups of tea would have put even misses Doyle to shame. Many people came to pay their respects despite the official wake being the next evening. Everyone brought something, like apple tart or similar wake provisions. The community certainly showed their respect and while for someone like me, unknown to most of them, it was mostly a procession of strangers who I might have met when I was too young to remember, it was vital for my aunts, my mother and my grandfather.
The official wake.
The next day, was the official wake. It was to be much the same as previous day’s unofficial wake but with even more people showing up to pay their respects and offer condolences. I thought after a while that the number of people who showed up must surely have exceeded the population of the small town. It was a fairly rural affair and this was evident in most of how things happened though most notable when a local pillar of the community showed up. Many of the younger family were shooed from the room with the coffin and orders were given that tea, sandwiches and whatnot be at the ready. It was that general reverence for the wealthy or well known that is unavoidable in a rural setting; not to say it is entirely absent in other settings but it is generally less obvious. It should be said that the person in question is reputed to be very nice and while I have no issue with the man himself I always recoil a little from such displays of semi-prostration. Throughout the day the tea and sandwiches and tarts and buns were in extreme abundance. Some more of the family had shown up and there was again much sitting and standing and the reflexive eating of sandwiches and drinking of tea. Wakes, at least in Ireland, can be an odd affair. Lurching from tears to raucous laughter or both present in the same room. Boredom inevitably enters into the equation too. Being bored on such an occasion is something which you feel quite guilty about. It is a fidgety kind of boredom. I think the absence of any particular thing to do is amplified by the grieving atmosphere. You feel like you should be doing something. Quite late in the evening, the priest returned to say the rosary. This was the most jarring and strange-seeming part of the Christian aspect of the wake/funeral. Most of the people reciting the 'Hail Mary's clearly only knew the words as sounds which follow one from the other. The enunciation of the words was secondary to the cadence. I think I found this particularly jarring because it is during the recitation of the rosary that Christianity comes closest to chanting. It has a cultish connotation to the outside eye. Needless to say this ceremony was more about Jesus and Mary than my grandmother. That said, I don't doubt it was comforting for the believers present.
I am an atheist as is probably evident to anyone who has read anything I have written on the topic of religion. It can be a little odd being an atheist around the ceremonies and ideas of Christians where death is concerned. Not all of my extended family are Christian. The younger generation has a few non-believers amongst our number. My grandmother however, as you might image, was a Christian and one of my aunts is devoutly so. The same aunt is the one most likely to be insisting on how things should be done. She is a member of the church choir and quite friendly with her local priest. A man who has the misfortune of simultaneously being both a catholic priest in Ireland and of possessing a noticeably shifty/slimy vibe. I have no reason, I should point out, to suspect the man is anything but decent but the vibe is quite strong. It is a mode of actions and expressions that makes you feel like he is about to swindle you in some way. In his defense, when he spoke of my grandmother at the funeral mass, he did a very good job of it and I don’t doubt that such a public describing of this kind is gratifying and comforting for members of a small town community. Needless to say, I was keeping my atheism to myself, though I have not hidden the fact from my family at large. I don’t have a problem with the religious taking to their ceremonies at time like that and I sincerely hope it brings them some comfort. The only thing I didn’t like about the whole Christian side of things was how much the whole thing was about Jesus. This was probably amplified I must admit by the fact that it was Easter weekend. It always puzzles me that Christians make such a big deal of Christmas and yet Easter passes without much ado at all. In any case, because of the weekend that it was, the funeral mass would have to double, to some extent, as regular Easter mass. In this the priests acceded a fair bit to the funeral side of things and I was grateful for that knowing how much it means to many in my family. There were readings to be done and one of my cousins and I were selected to do them. He is every bit as atheist as I am. Being asked to do things like this doesn’t bother me at all. I do, however, always get the feeling of being an imposter to some extent but as I have said, I have made my atheism know and I assume it is simply not important. I wouldn’t partake in religious ceremonies in the general run of things but for better or worse this honoring of my grandmother was to have a Christian form and so I partook for the sake of that and the traditional aspects of it.
It was definitely bizarre to be standing at the pulpit of a large Catholic church reading to a congregations of Catholics about the resurrection of Jesus. There was some bowing also. I mostly had the feeling that I was in some fashion disrespecting their beliefs as I read from the book of acts and didn’t believe a syllable of what I was saying. Still, if they were willing to have a godless heathen reading in their church, who was I to spurn the invitation. I should mention though that I have no idea if the priests were aware of my godlessness. I doubt they would have minded in any case but you never know. I think it is this particular uncertainty that gave rise to my feelings of being an imposter. There is a peculiarity to being a non-Christian at a Christian mass too in that I think the non-Christian actually hears the words that are spoken or sung in a way that Christians themselves don’t. It is like repeating the same word over and over, until it becomes just a strange sound and seems to lose its usual meaning. I think by virtue of familiarity and repetition that words of prayers and hymns have lost any really content to many Christians, though I admit I am judging by the standard of your run-of-the-mill Irish Catholic. The lyrics of “He is lord” for example. The sentiment that “Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord.” This is a sentiment likely to derail an inter-faith conference in short order! The sentiment is absolutely totalitarian. It is the certainty that everyone will be brought to heel and everyone will be made to submit whether they like it or not. Nasty stuff. I want to make it clear that I don’t think most of the Christians singing the song actually think that way. As I mentioned earlier, sheer repetition has masked the brutal sentiment. It is just a hymn and these are the lyrics.
Death and ritual.
I have long been aware of the need most people have for ceremony and I can see from the stages of the funeral that as a ceremony it is not arbitrary. There is in it something of a process. The knowledge that a loved one is gone and is never coming back can take a little while to sink in. The wake is the beginning of the process. It gives people time to come to terms with their new reality. The closing of the coffin is another step. The person is still present in some respect but never to be seen again. The act of lowering the coffin into the ground has a feeling of finality. All of this seems helpful to me in guiding the bereaved though the first few days and the coming to terms with the fact that this terrible thing has definitely happened and cannot be undone. This acceptance is a necessary part of the letting-go that is needed to be able to continue with life after the death of a loved one. When the person who has died was very close to us, the letting-go will never be complete. There will always be the occasional pangs of loss but the ceremony is necessary to get life progressing again.
My grandmother was a very loving person. She had numerous grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. She delighted in them all. She was proud of them regardless of their successes or failures. She was by any definition of the word; a good person. Her loss will be keenly felt and she will be remembered for as long as any of who have known her will live and perhaps probably longer as the younger generations hear stories about her and what she got up to in life. I have come to think more lately about the legacy of the dead. I think it is important to remember them and pass on those memories to younger generations.
It is striking how much those she has left behind are comforted by her.
Her strength in life, her positivity, gives the feeling that she made the
most of her life and that's makes her death less tragic somehow. It is a fitting testament to someone who has died but has lived well that the people who survive them should try to learn from their example. In my own case, I think I could do with adopting a little of her attitude to life in general. I have spent many years analyzing life and mind and self; I think I have done this to some extent at the expense of actually living it. I shall be making an effort to get on with the business of actually enjoying my life as opposed to simply observing it. I can think of no greater homage to my grandmother or any that she would approve of more.