Dying thoughts

Mar 12th, 2009 | By | Category: Personal Columns

‘Each funeral should be a preparation for your own death’.

It was a noble aspiration expressed in some book of pastoral theology from a quarter of a century ago.  Of course, it’s not like that; well, not like that for me, anyway.

What do I think about at funerals?

There’s too much other stuff to think about dying. Have the people doing the readings arrived?  Why hasn’t the person doing the prayers got a piece of paper in their hand?  Who is that in the second pew, has someone been left out of the proceedings?  Why, if six old Protestant ladies in a country church singing to the sound of a wheezy harmonium can generate a volume equivalent to a Saturn V rocket leaving the launchpad, can this congregation of three hundred in a suburban church be hardly heard behind a postage stamp?

Even in the graveyard, there is often hardly more opportunity to think about death.  There is the lengthy pause while the missing mourner arrives.  There is the navigation around the gravestones to find a secure place to stand for the interment.  (Country graveyards with graves with stone surrounds are hazardous when trying to walk with dignity ahead of a funeral procession). There is the moment of realization when you become aware that neither the undertaker nor the gravedigger has left dry soil for the committal and you have to pick up pick clods of wet earth which land on the polished oak with a series of loud thuds.  There is a pause at the end as you try to remember whether roses were going to be thrown into the grave, or the Masons were going to file past, or whether an old soldier was going to give an oration.  There is a moment of uncertainty as the diggers catch your eye, waiting for the signal that they can cover the grave.

Not really much preparation for anything, except trying to get mud off your shoes, and wondering who was the person in the second row who has not come to the graveyard.  At tea afterwards, people will laugh about the awkward moments and explain that the person in the second row had come from their hospital bed to be present and had asked to pass on their thanks for the nice things said about Harry.

Sitting near the back of a church this morning, at the funeral of a friend’s father, was more an occasion for pondering eternal stuff.  Anonymous amongst the large congregation at the requiem Mass, there was time to sit and listen and think.

My friend spoke of the ‘echoes’ left by his late father; not loud and bombastic sounds, but soft and gentle whispers. It was a beautiful piece of imagery for a quiet, unassuming man whose presence touched many lives.

‘What echoes do we leave?’ I wondered. ‘What echoes will I leave?’

The parish priest sang the closing lines of the liturgy in a deep, mellifluous voice and we filed out into the mild, spring air.

I resisted the Ulster tradition of shaking hands sternly, with a gruff, ‘sorry for your trouble’; this was south Dublin. A brief hug, before I set off down the street.

‘Morning, Father’ a workman called.  It was one of those moments when wearing a hat would have allowed an appropriately respectful response.

Echoes sounded through the hours since.  What echoes do I leave?

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  1. Look, he’s dead. All the religious stuff is for the survivors. You leave your mark on the living by your friendship and your caring and your love. It happens naturally as you live your life.

    It has nothing to do with your demise, except to the extent that your friends are heartbroken at your loss. That’s the measure of your life. The sadder they are, the better you be.

    You want to know how an old Scottish Prod should arrive, become beloved and die in an ancient Irish Catholic city? Read this.

  2. I like the thought of echoes that we leave…we buried the last of our uncles a couple of weeks ago – terrible funeral – no structure/dignity – little about his not insignificant life – no comfort – no friendliness in the service – just cold, hard, hell-fire stuff from the tradition I left some years ago. His widow was just glad that the minister hadn’t turned up in jeans as he had done for two baptisms on the previous Sunday! A member of the congregation needs time to reflect, to feel the loss and to be comforted… May all the funerals that we conduct give mourners the opportunity to think about the echoes…

  3. As far as I am aware, my friend is not particularly religious – an agnostic maybe, I don’t know. I only talk politics with him; he’s rather good at economics The ‘echoes’ for him were the marks his father had left.

    I love the Scottish Prod funeral piece. I used to end up doing a lot of funerals for people where there was clearly no religious belief. Jock’s way of doing things is much more honest.

  4. I don’t understand the ‘evangelical’ dislike for doing stuff without any dignity. You would have thought that had he wished for a sympathetic hearing he might have tried to establish some rapport with his listeners.

  5. Sometimes we hear the echoes at times and in places where we least expect them.

    A simple touch can be so much more effective than words.

  6. You’ll never know what echoes you leave. Only those left behind will be able to hear them.

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