A colleague comes from Co Derry, from the home area of poet Seamus Heaney. A sister of the Nobel laureate was one of her school teachers.
As autumn rain poured upon the Gloucestershire school in which we work, we discussed funerals, the importance of gestures, the importance of the tangible. The importance of wakes, and funeral masses, and standing in respect, and simply being present for the bereaved. In the conversation, there is a sense of connection with the places and the customs described in Heaney’s lines.
Seamus Heaney would have understood the symbolism and significance of each moment. He would have understood the pain felt by people barred by COVID-19 measures from properly marking the death of members of their community. He would have understood why those prevented from attending the funeral liturgy would now line the road between the home of the deceased and the church where the final farewell would be said.
Seamus Heaney would have especially understood the significance of the final steps toward the open grave. He would have understood the intensity of pain and numbness felt as those feet crossed the grass. He would have understood the all enveloping silence that fell upon all gathered around.
There are no written rules, no handbook of what should happen, only usage passed down generations; practices never articulated, but simply received and transmitted. Everyone knows how it should be done, no-one needs to give instructions.
The closing lines of his poem 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 –
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 knew how important is that final lift; how much it says about the closeness of the relationship with the deceased for someone to claim those last steps.
One of the most moving moments in my ministry was the funeral of a much loved member of the church who died on a Christmas morning. He had five daughters and there was no question that anyone other than they would carry their father’s coffin into the church for the funeral and to the graveside for the burial. It was a moment worthy of Heaney.