All Souls’ Day, the commemoration of the faithful departed: there were times when paying respect to them was an exhausting experience.
In years spent in parish ministry in Northern Ireland, if the undertaker phoned the funeral notice into the Belfast Telegraph by 10 am, it would appear in that evening’s edition. One evening in the newspaper would be considered sufficient notice for the funeral, which might then take place the following day. A person dying at 2 am on Monday, might respectably be buried at 2 pm on Tuesday.
To think it arose only from a desire to make the funeral arrangements would be unduly cynical, there were many people who seemed genuinely to value the presence of a priest at moments of bereavement, but rising from the bed at 2 am to drive to some lonely farmhouse to condole with a family always took an effort of will. Perhaps it was the tiredness, perhaps it was the inability to find words to match the occasion, often, though, it was the coldness that most registered in the consciousness.
A generation ago, central heating would hardly have reached many of the farms. The fire in the grate or the kitchen range would have been the source of warmth, but in the early hours of the morning, the grate would have no more than embers and serious business like a funeral could only be discussed in a good room. The best front room would be opened up and everyone would sit exhausted and stunned in the harsh light of a bulb hanging from the ceiling; it would have been thought frivolous, almost disrespectful to the deceased, to have turned on table or standard lamps and so to have changed the mood of the room. Tea would have been made and hardly a word would have broken the silence of the sadness.
The undertaker would arrive fifteen minutes later, immaculate in black suit and waistcoat, white shirt and black tie. The time of the service would be discussed and he would take his leave; there would be prayers and a time fixed to see them in the morning. Of course, it was already the morning, it would be three or four o’clock, and returning home in the darkness, the sleep that would follow would be fitful. The alarm would ring at 7 am, there was a day’s work ahead.
Coldness evokes those moments of departure; the coldness that comes from tiredness. Sitting in front of an empty fire with only the ceiling light lit, memories come of snatches of conversations and details of hymns and passages of Scripture and tea in china cups.
It was a wise farmer in the parish who once asked what the rush was all about, “sure, won’t they still be dead in the morning?” Indeed, they would, but respect for their memory demanded immediate action.