Lifting the dead

Jan 28th, 2009 | By | Category: Spirituality

A colleague once objected that he had been invited to share in carrying the coffin at a funeral, “Don’t they know that priests don’t carry coffins?”

In a rural community, the invitation would have been made to him as a mark of respect.  He was taking no part in the ceremony and the lead mourners would have made the gesture out of a desire to show him respect; he did not see it thus.  A liberal in most matters, it seemed odd that he would suddenly seize upon verses from the Old Testament.  The prophet Ezekiel instructed that, ‘A priest must not defile himself by going near a dead person’.  It would have been tempting to have asked whether he observed all the other ritual laws, but to have done so would only have added to his annoyance.

It seemed sad that a man who had for many years worked overseas and who had developed an acute understanding and sensitivity towards others, should so forcefully shun the traditions of the community from which he came.

Seamus Heaney would make an excellent teacher of pastoral theology to those ministering in rural parishes.  The closing lines of The Lift capture a sense of the honour bestowed in sharing in that final journey:

They bore her lightly on the bier. Four women,
Four friends – she would have called them girls –
stepped in.

And claimed the final lift beneath the hawthorn.

The etiquette is that those closest begin the journey, carrying the deceased from the family home, and those closest complete the journey, usually to the graveside where the coffin is taken by the undertakers and gravediggers and, with great solemnity, lowered into the ground, inch by inch.

Heaney knows how important is that final lift; how much it says about the closeness of the relationship to claim those last steps.  In a community where women would once have remained back in the house, a graveyard being no place for those of feminine graces, for four women to claim the last lift was a radical declaration.  Only once have I seen daughters carry a coffin; to see four unrelated women shuffling the final yards to the plot would be a mark of inclusiveness having become deep-rooted in a traditional society.

To share in the lift is not only a tribute to the deceased; it is a mark of the deep regard for the material world that imbues Irish spirituality; a declaration that the stuff of this world is worthy of respect and reverence.

Reflecting on the colleague’s aversion to any contact with the coffin, one wonders what he meant when, reciting the Creed, he declared his belief in the resurrection of the body, and why would he affirm a faith in the incarnation if all that matters is the spiritual?

Heaney’s narrative captures a moment of sublime respect.  Whatever the belief, or unbelief, of the participants, they were closer to a Biblical reflection of the value of body and spirit, than one who would have stood back and watched from a distance.

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  1. I have been to only two funerals in Northern ireland where I have walked behind the coffin and at both of these the daughters took part in the carrying of the coffin as indeed did other close female family friends and relatives. The Milltown cemetery is very large and it took 45 minutes for us to reach the grave side. Austin was carried every step of the way. It showed to me the enormous love and respect his family had for him. By the end of the journey it was becoming a struggle with frequent swaps but he was not to be left to the undertakers car.

  2. I have been at funerals where there was actually a rota of lifts. Each team of four being summoned forward in good time. The Church of Ireland community, being very conservative, would probably tend to expect men to do the carrying.

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