The final journey
It is hard to imagine the impact coronavirus is having on family funerals. Funerals held in private with only the closest of family in attendance

The death notices in the daily papers and on rip.ie say it all.

“Funeral has taken place privately”

“Mass will take place at a later date.”

“Private funeral will take place due to Government advice.”

Whatever about self-isolation, the guidelines regarding funerals marks a scene change in the ordinary rhythm of life of people for whom “missing a funeral” is unheard of. So how are people coping with the new guidelines as the country gears up to the fallout of coronavirus?

Michael Daffy is an undertaker based in Killmallock, Co Limerick. “It took a small bit of time for families to accept that funerals were only for the close family and at a push very close friends. Young people are coping well. They just email their condolences. Older people are more inclined to phone the family.”

Most funerals will be private with people going online to sympathise

Michael says he expects the emergency rules will change the way people sympathise at funerals in the future. “Most funerals will be private with people going online to sympathise. We will print all those messages of support and present them as a handbook to the family. ”

On a foreboding note he says undertakers are heeding the Government’s warning to be ready for what’s ahead.

People are playing their part

Jasper Murphy of McCarthy’s Undertakers in Fethard, Co Tipperary says people are coping well and obeying the rules. “I’ve had two funerals since the new guidelines came in and as far as I can see people are playing their part. Most have close family who are health compromised and they don’t want to put them at risk.

One of the funerals we had was of a very well-known local man who, in ordinary circumstances, might have had 1,000-plus people at his funeral

“However, I find people are more inclined to want to shake hands in the graveyard and that will have to stop.

“One of the funerals we had was of a very well-known local man who, in ordinary circumstances, might have had 1,000-plus people at his funeral. Instead of that, people stood at their gates for his final 3km journey. It was the ultimate compliment to the man.”

So far Jasper hasn’t had to manage the funeral of a coronavirus victim. “The guidelines around these funerals will be very tough on families. Embalming will not be an option. There will be no wake or service and the unaccompanied coffin will go straight to the crematorium in Cork. It’s going to be very hard on people.”

No times being announced

Mike Cross of Cross Funeral Directors in Limerick city says people are using their common sense.

“In accordance with new HSE directives and Government guidelines regarding public gatherings all funerals are private. We are still finding our way but it’s happening fast.

“We are putting up the notices but we are not announcing any times. It’s a help that some parishes are live streaming funeral masses so people can join in even if it is remotely.”

“Irish people like to give those who have passed away a good send off. They want to support the family and I don’t think that will change.”

A supportive send-off

One of the traditional strengths of an Irish funeral is that it gives families a supportive send-off for their loved ones says Fr Iggy O’Donovan, prior of the Augustine Abbey in Fethard Co Tipperary. “The wake and funeral are very much part of the mourning and grieving process. There’s a great strength, comfort and healing to it all as it recognises the person and supports their family.”

I’ve never heard anyone being critical about how we honour the dead

He says a teenager he knows, whose father’s funeral had to be private got great solace from seeing how many people had watched the funeral online. “He made contact with everyone and with those who sent online messages and it was very important to him to do that.” Fr Iggy believes the Catholic Church retains great credibility when it comes to bereavement. “I’ve never heard anyone being critical about how we honour the dead. Indeed, it has been interesting that some high-profile funerals in recent months were very traditional catholic funerals.”

When this pandemic has past Fr Iggy says priests will help families do whatever it is they need to remember those who died. “I don’t think things will change. People will realise how vital that community and moral support is and it will mean more than ever to them.”

Supporting each other

I was 12 years old when my dad died suddenly. I can remember everything about his removal so clearly. The crowds at the hospital mortuary. The line of cars and people at every junction on the road home from Wicklow town to the small church in Ballycoogue.

I remember many of the people who shook my hand, the classmates who had tears in their eyes as they asked was I OK. I couldn’t understand why none of us children were allowed go to his funeral mass and burial. It was the way of the time I suppose.

The support we received helped ease the loss and I swore I would make a better effort to attend funerals from then on

It’s almost 19 years since my mother died. Again, I was brought to tears by the people who took time to visit the house or come to the removal and her funeral. I so appreciated their coming and hearing stories about my parents that none of their children had ever heard before. The support we received helped ease the loss and I swore I would make a better effort to attend funerals from then on. And I’ve kept that promise.

Funerals, especially in rural Ireland, can be huge events. I’ve often queued for an hour and more before being able to pay my respects to the family. It doesn’t matter if I know only a few people in the line. What matters is that I offer a word of support, share a hug and a hand shake.

With COVID-19 gripping the country that won’t be possible for some time so we must make the best of what’s there. Let it be an online message, a text or a hand written card be sure to send your support. We are all going to need it.

Death, dying and bereavement in Ireland

  • An average of 28,000 deaths occur in Ireland each year.
  • Some 10 people are directly affected by each death
  • Two-thirds of those who die are over 65 years of age.
  • More than 70% of people die outside their own homes and around 48% die in acute hospitals.
  • Though most people adjust to bereavement over time with the support of family & friends, evidence tells us that between 15% and 20% of people may develop complications.
  • Source: The Irish Hospice Foundation

    Excerpt from Mid-Term Break by Seamus Heaney

    Voted Ireland’s 3rd most favourite poem

    In the porch I met my father crying –

    He had always taken funerals in his stride –

    And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

    The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram

    When I came in, and I was embarrassed

    By old men standing up to shake my hand

    And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’

    Whispers informed strangers that I was the eldest,

    Away at school, as my mother held my hand

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