Dying in troubled times can be a terrible strain on the living

Funerals in a time of Covid have been fraught affairs, but it was even tougher in famine times, says Trevor Laffan
Dying in troubled times can be a terrible strain on the living

An etching of a funeral taking place during the famine at Skibbereen, West Cork. Funerals during the Covid-19 pandemic have been subject to regulations

BIRTHS, marriages, and deaths are a big deal in Ireland. We’re an empathetic, sociable outfit and we like to support each other in good times and bad, usually with a few drinks.

Until recently, we had parties suitable for every occasion, but Covid restrictions have put these on hold — for most of us anyway.

A small minority ignore the regulations and carry on as normal, while the rest of us learn different ways of doing things, including how we send our loved ones to their final resting place.

I was never great at attending funerals in my younger days. I always felt awkward meeting the bereaved. Sympathising with them made me feel uncomfortable because I never knew what to say.

When I did attend a service, I usually slipped away quietly afterwards without offering my condolences to anyone. It was easier that way and I figured it didn’t make too much difference to the mourners whether I was there or not because those poor people had enough on their minds already.

Shaking hands with me was one thing less for them to have to endure, and I was certain I wouldn’t be missed.

I was wrong of course but I didn’t realise that until 2005 when my sister Jill died. She was in her mid-forties and had been suffering from cancer. She was married with two young children and even though we knew that she was close to the end, her death was a real shock to the system.

She was well known in the community through her music and her hairdressing so there was a large turn-out at her funeral. I was surprised at how many of my friends and work colleagues attended the removal and the funeral service and it meant a lot that they took the time to travel and offer their support. It was really appreciated.

That changed my outlook and ever since then, I make an effort to attend funerals and sympathise with the grieving relatives because I now know how much it means.

I no longer worry about what I say to them either because that doesn’t really matter. In fact, you don’t even need to say anything, just being there is what’s important.

My mother spent the last few months of her life living with me and when she was being removed from the house in 2017, two friends of mine appeared in the hallway. They had driven down from Cavan to offer their condolences and as soon as the hearse left, they turned around and made the long journey back home again. You can’t buy that kind of support and I get that now.

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has robbed many families of that support, but while we may not be able to gather in the church or attend the burial or the cremation, we found alternative ways of doing things.

When we couldn’t go to the church, we went as far as we were allowed and stood outside, socially distanced, or watched it on the laptop. We did what we could to be a part of it, to show support.

When we couldn’t congregate at the graveyards, we lined the roadway and paid our respects as the hearse passed by. It was different, but it meant a lot to the families and they appreciated the effort.

It’s not the first time we’ve had to improvise where death is concerned, and if you feel hard done by during this pandemic, spare a thought for those who lived through the famine. Bodies were stored in public houses when the mortuaries could no longer cope, and mass graves were used to bury the multitudes.

Approximately one million people died from starvation and disease and those bodies needed to be stored somewhere to prevent the spread of infection and to protect the corpses from consumption by wild animals. Pubs were the best option because beer cellars provided a cold storage space which helped delay the decomposition at a time when there was no refrigeration. It was a time for improvisation as described in ‘Ireland Calling’, a website dedicated to all things Irish.

The famine was not a time for observing the accepted niceties of civilised behaviour. At the height of it, thousands were dying by the day. Those who survived had barely enough energy to carry on living, which meant that in many parts of Ireland, the usual burial practices were suspended.

The normal wakes and respectful religious ceremonies were set aside, and the dead were buried in a hurry. Many were simply placed in mass graves alongside dozens of other nameless victims. Coffins with hinged lids were often used for the service and once the ceremony was over, the coffin lid would be opened, and the body removed so the coffin could be used for another victim.

Diseases were rife, so burials were carried out as quickly as possible to reduce the chance of contagion. People often collapsed due to hunger or disease and appeared to be dead and, in the atmosphere of haste, mistakes were made.

One of the most famous instances involved a boy called Tom Guerin. He was only three years old when he was buried alive in a mass grave near Skibbereen in West Cork. The details of exactly what happened are sketchy. Some reports say he was buried for two days and was only discovered when more bodies were put into the same pit.

Others say he was discovered during his burial when the gravedigger accidentally struck his legs with a spade, causing the boy to groan. This is probably the more likely scenario, but we’ll never know for sure. The boy survived but was crippled for the rest of his life because of his damaged legs.

Things are bad now, but they could be worse.

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