I am devastated. Really devastated and sad. I received one of those dreaded overseas calls yesterday afternoon telling me that one of my oldest and best friends had died unexpectedly in Ireland. When that happens, you have no chance to say goodbye, no opportunity to say all the things they mean to you, thank them for all the big and little things they have done for you throughout your life. Thank them for loving your kids in a way no one else could. You feel robbed of all those missed opportunities that you let pass you by when you could have said something but left it until the next time you saw them, sure of course that you would. You are both invincible. Life is long. They will be there forever. They have been in your life since you were two.
That is until that call came. Osephagel cancer. Three weeks from diagnosis to death. They told no one. No one had time to prepare. Everyone is plunged into unspeakable grief. He was the local Solicitor in a country town in Ireland so knew everyone and everyone knew him. He’ll be sorely missed. He made a big difference to people’s lives. Doing a job like that in a small community you do. His best friend was his wife Eileen and he had one beloved son Dara. Their world has been torn apart. How do they put it back together without him in it. He was her epicenter. They had been married for 30 years, happily.
I am in the clinic still and too unwell to travel for the funeral which only compounds the grief as I cannot go through the grieving rituals with my old friends who knew him and be with them. The Irish grieve very well. They hold a wake the day after someone has died where so much of modern society has lost it’s way with death, but the Irish wake, where the living, the bereaved and the dead remain bound together, shows us the way things can be done. If you have never been to an Irish wake, or only seen the movie version, you probably think a wake is just another Irish piss up, a few pints around the corpse and an open coffin. But you would be wrong.
In the Anglo-Saxon world, death is a whisper. Instinctively we feel we should dim the lights, lower our voices and draw the screens. We want to give the dead, dying and the grieving room. We say we do so because we don’t want to intrude. And that is true but not for these reasons.
We don’t want to intrude because we don’t want to look at the mirror of our own death. We have lost our way with death. In Ireland where my family have lived in the same village for the last 200 years, and in much of the rest of Ireland, death still speaks with a louder voice.
The wake is among the oldest rites of humanity first cited in the great Homeric war poem the Iliad and commonly practised across Europe until the last 200 years. The final verses of the Iliad, the display of the Trojan prince Hector’s corpse, the wailing women, the feasting and the funeral games, are devoted to his wake. And such rituals would be easily recognisable to any wake-goer on the island today.
For our ancestors, a wake, with its weight of obligations between the living and the bodies of the dead, and the dead and living, was a pathway to restore natural order to the world, heal our mortal wound, and communally overcome the death of any one individual. An act, in our current, thin psychological jargon, of closure.
Through urbanisation, industrialisation and the medicalisation of death, the wake died away in most of the western world and death itself came to be silenced by what might be called the Western Death Machine. But out in the west, among the Celts, this ancient form of death sharing lives on.
My friend Michael’s community, his relatives, some strangers even, will come in great numbers to pray at his side, feast, talk, gossip about sheep prices or the stock market, and openly mark his death in countless handshakes and “Sorry for your trouble” utterances.
They will wake together through the night with Michael’s corpse to guard the passage out for his departing soul and man the Gate of Chaos against Hades’ invading horde lest the supernatural world sought to invade the living world. Just as the Trojans too before us had watched over Hector’s corpse. A perpetual quorum; dying in each other’s lives and living on in each other’s deaths at every wake ever since.
It was blessing of a kind, an act of grace. We give ourselves, our mortal presence, in such death sharings, or we give nothing at all; all the rest of our powers, wealth, position, status, are useless.
To be truly human is to bear the burden of our own mortality and to strive, in grace, to help others carry theirs; sometimes lightly, sometimes courageously. In communally accepting death into our lives through the Irish wake we are all able to relearn the first and oldest lessons of humanity. How to be brave in irreversible sorrow. How to reach out to the dying, the dead and the bereaved. How to go on living no matter how great the rupture or loss. How to face your own.