Regarding the dead

Feb 18th, 2013 | By | Category: Spirituality

Arriving at the moment the undertaker arrived, I smiled, ‘Perfect timing, we can get the arrangements sorted out’.

He smiled back, ‘Perfect timing, yourself. I’m on my own, you’ll have to give me a lift with him’. We stood quietly and prayed together and then carefully and reverently moved him, just as we would quietly and reverently stand at his graveside when it came to his funeral.

It was a moment that would have raised objections from a one time colleague. He once complained 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.

Heaney’s narrative captures a moment of sublime respect.  I must give the poem to the undertaker sometime – he would understand it better than the priest

Clonenagh graveyard

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  1. One of the most recent funerals I attended was for the father of my friend Lorraine. He had three sons and three daughters. All of whom took turns to carry the coffin through the Milltown cemetery. It was a long slow journey but he was carried the whole way.

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