Coronavirus deaths and lockdown restrictions on funerals hit the Irish particularly hard

Coronavirus deaths and lockdown restrictions on funerals hit the Irish particularly hard

THE cruel consequences of this pernicious coronavirus are so much worse than the terrible toll of the thousands who have tragically died.

Now the manner of the deaths and the subsequent natural grief process have been severely limited by the critical but vital distancing precautions, so that the suffering is compounded.

Elderly parents, husbands or wives have sadly died in intensive care units without the comfort of their nearest and dearest being able to be there with them to ease them in their hour of need.

If it was not for the dedication and sensitivity of those angels in their scary spaceship infection protection suits, who have worked through the night to stay with the patient who would have died alone in such an alien environment.

Such solitary deaths have not been confined to the elderly as there are numerous cases of what had seemed young, fit men and women, including many of these frontline nurses and doctors, and even children who have suffered an untimely death in this way.

For those not in hospitals but in care homes, who have been critically stricken with the virus, the families have had to rely on the hard working and underpaid care workers to be the ones who treat their long-term residents as surrogate families.

It has been left to them to be there when the moment comes for the unfortunate loved one to slip away for eternity and not die completely alone.

In some cases they have held mobiles to the ear of their patients so they could hear a remote last goodbye from a wife, husband, son or daughter.

These are such unique and heart-rendering circumstances but mercifully the Health Secretary Matt Hancock has now promised to find a way to ease the restrictions. Soon, it seems, close family members will be equipped with PPE so that they can at least be together at the end.

There is another terrible consequence however, as the natural and customary process of bereavement with a funeral, where the wider family and friends can come together to celebrate the life of the lost one, has now been drastically restricted by the social distancing rules.

The funeral is a rite of passage that for generations has been a vital part of our culture and is clearly a way for the bereaved to share the love and the support of family and friends and as a way of coming to terms with terrible loss.

A first for me recently was to go online - instead of flying to Ireland – to witness the funeral Mass of the Cork-born poet and my dear friend Mary Buckley Clarke, whose funeral was streamed live from the church.

I watched from the comfort of my kitchen, while drinking a cappuccino.

Seeing just three close relatives and a child in the empty church was a poignant reminder of how hard this must have been for them to be there, almost alone, with the just the coffin and the priest.

Without the love and support of the rest of the family and friends around them to give comfort and to share the memories, it must have made the pain more acute. For me, miles away across the sea, unable to participate, it was an unnerving experience.

The Irish, in particular, of all nations in the world, are especially good at the notion of a good funeral - which has always been a huge part of our Irish cultural life, be that for the big public funerals for prominent figures down to the smallest country parish church, when all the village will turn out.

In recent years I seem to have been going to a lot of funerals and it had got to the point when it had become something of a joke between my son and daughter, who ridiculed me for having a funeral fetish.

I must admit however that although a lapsed Catholic I am a firm believer in the emotional benefit and spiritually uplifting balm of a well organised funeral Mass firmly focused on the celebration of the life of the one now departed.

When done well, balancing gravitas with fond humour, they can do much to ease the pain and help those suffering in grief to come to terms with their huge loss.

Being from a Catholic background and having been an altar boy serving at Requiem Mass at a time when they were all in Latin, I was always aware of how important these community occasions were.

Then I suppose I had form by going to some big ones.

In the cold winter of 1965 my school friend and I hitched down to London from Manchester to queue for hours into the night in Westminster to see Sir Winston Churchill as he lay in State.

The next day we lined the streets near St Paul's for the epic State Funeral, the biggest since the one for Irish-born Wellington in 1852.

A month later we hitched to Holyhead to repeat the experience for the Irish State funeral for Sir Roger Casement in Dublin.

Over the years I went to more funerals, such as the big one in the Pro Cathedral for Sean MacBride, the father of my friend Tiernan, and also to the memorial for Terry Wogan, more recently, at Westminster.

It is not just these big occasion funerals that have their place in fulfilling a collective need but also the more personal local community funerals that have such importance.

I was tasked with helping organise the funeral back in 1988 for Donna Arthur, the wife of Davey Arthur from the Fureys, who had died young of cancer, leaving Davey with five young children.

That was a true Irish funeral with thousands of people jamming the lanes around Kilteel, where Fr Brian D’Arcy presided over the Mass, as he has for so many celebrities.

In the Irish tradition there was a real Irish wake in the Kilteel Inn that went on with songs and memories late into the night.

The very first time I experienced and recognised the significance of community support was in 1986 when in the week after Christmas both my parents died unexpectedly with 10 days of each other.

As the only sibling living in England, I had to organise both funerals in Cheshire as my brother and sisters flew back and forth from Canada, America and Portugal.

Racked with grief myself I was gratified and appreciative of the kindness and loving support of members of the parish where my parents had been very active.

I realised then just how important that community support is to the bereaved.

In 2012 I had to go to San Francisco to organise the funeral for my brother and to bring his body back home for burial in the family plot in Cheshire.

Then at Christmas in 2013 my fashion designer sister told me on the phone that she had six months to live as she had terminal lung cancer and had never smoked a cigarette in her life.

She asked me to organise her funeral and bring her body home and bury her in a ‘green’ coffin with my parents and brother.

I had arranged for Irish music to be played live at the funerals in San Francisco and Toronto, so in Altrincham I wanted an Irish whistle player to be there for her.

The night before, out of the blue, I called Michael McGoldrich to ask if he knew anybody and immediately he said he would be there himself the next day to play The Parting Glass.

I will never forget that comforting act of kindness and the generosity of his gesture of support. His playing was sublime and helped ease the pain.

This ritual of the serious nature of the sacrament of the Requiem Mass followed by some sort of reception, where the mourners can enjoin with the family and share memories and stories and sing a few songs fulfils a deep need in people to have the opportunity to express sorrow.

It is the emotional and spiritual punctuation mark of a good funeral that allows people to come to terms with the finality of death.

It facilitates those left behind to begin to face life and a future acknowledging that what had gone before is now over.

Let us hope that before too long normal service will be resumed for us all and once again we can mourn our dead in the true Irish tradition.