Monday, 26 October 2015

A Good Irish Funeral

It's four o'clock in the afternoon, I've just arrived Home and already there's fresh sandwiches, homemade scones and cakes aplenty - my diet for the next two days.  Cousins from the-other-side-of-the-family have taken over the back hall, making a temporary tea station.  I can't remember greeting my Mam, my brothers or the rest of my family when I got home, but there must have been emotional hugs.
The sitting room has been cleared of the recently purchased furniture, to make way for my father's coffin.  I'm glad that there aren't too many people here yet and that I can be in the room by myself before Dad arrives back home from the undertakers.  I'm pleased too that he didn't need a post mortem - one less intrusion.  Overall, his exit from this life was swift and uneventful.  Good for a man who had little patience.
My aunt has dressed the sitting room with table clothes and flowers.  Extra photos of my father have been unearthed.  He was a divil for not looking at the camera, or disappearing altogether, in family shots.  'At this rate, we'll have no photos for your memorial cards', we'd say, half joking, but deadly serious.  There is a lovely photo of him on the fireplace.  He is smiling, standing in front of a castle on a forestry 'go-see' trip to Croatia that I've never seen before.  I wonder who took the photo ?  Another photo of him, taken at my brother's wedding last year, a close up of him, cropped from a family photo.  He looks healthy and well.
Soon, the hearse arrives and Dad returns to Milltown for one last time.  I can't remember who, or how his coffin was carried into the house, although I was standing watching.  All I can remember is that the undertakers is wearing black leather gloves, which made it all seem both very serious and final and I feel a sense of dread.

My father is laid out in the navy suit that he bought for the wedding last year.  It looks crisp and fresh.  His face has lost many of it's wrinkles now.  No jokes about his craggy face resembling his fellow chain-smoker Keith Richards' from the Rolling Stones today.  I don't like the waxy coldness of my father's skin and prefer to touch his chest.  His hair feels lovely and soft though, but it's unfamiliar.  The last time I touched his hair must have been when I cut his hair years ago.  He looks like he is smiling, is about to answer back. 

I instantly hate the custom white satin frill around the coffin and want to take it off, but I'm a bit spooked about what it's covering, so I leave it there.  I let it be known to my brothers that I want a wicker coffin, no frill and no rosary beads.
My father's death notice was on LMFM radio.  The only time that we all stand in silence and listen to it.  I can't help but smile and think of Dad's obsession with 'the deaths'.  Our long running joke that you'd get an awful fright if you heard your own name called out.  It was John Russell's day today. 
I can't sleep the night after my father died and I get up at 4am to sit with him, along with my aunt, relieving my brother.  The room is cold, but there would be no warming us from the tiredness anyway.  I don't think to fetch duvets from the hot press, finding some jackets instead.  We chat mostly about my fathers sisters, Olive, Bridie and Imelda who died before him.  The time moves swiftly by.

None of us can settle into the whole funeral thing until my brother and his wife arrive from Bristol the following morning.  They had trouble getting flights, as Monday flights from England had been booked up by returning Irish rugby fans.  An early morning flight on Tuesday to Belfast allows them to arrive before the crowds descend.  I'm so pleased that the they have time to breathe.  My mother is relieved that we are all here now, her flock around her.

The visitors come in their droves.  So many of the extended Russell family.  So many country men.  Men whose names that I've heard over the years, but never met in person.  I categorise them into 'cattle', 'sheep', 'playing cards', 'silage', 'The 'Wood', 'the town', 'Fine Gael', 'school friend', 'neighbour'.  Warm handshakes.  Their big, padded hands feel rough from physical work.  Just like my Dad's.  'I'm John's daughter', I say, over and over.

I stood on the marble surround of the fireplace beside my fathers coffin for most of the wake.  It was the easiest place to greet people.  I have a pain in my back from standing there, but that little sting felt good all the same.  So many people.  

My father was a complex man, opinionated and argumentative at times.  Before he died, I wouldn't have been able to tell you what people thought of him.  Over the two days of his wake, so many express genuine upset and shock that he has died.  I can hear that fondness in the way people speak about him.  Some are too upset to talk to me.  We talk about the 'character' that he was.  'Ah, he was an awful man altogether', they laugh and I know what they mean.  We joke that they had come to the wake to have the last word, where he couldn't answer back.  They admire this fine looking man in the coffin.  His hair.  Some remark that he had never put on weight.  'That was down to his slimming tablets', I say, mimicking him puffing on a cigarette.  They nod, knowingly.  Feck you Dad, there was no talking to you.

Coincidentally, a neighbour has also died and there are a few comical instances of people turning up at the wrong funeral.  In one case, a lady sheepishly asks if she can take back the cake that she brought, as it was intended for the other funeral.  Just as well it hadn't been cut up.  Others swiftly turn in the driveway when they realise that no one looked familiar, including the corpse. 

I meet two neighbours who have recently their lost young adult children tragically.  We talk about their boys, but there is no consoling here.  No philosophical discussion about a long life lived.  I see the pain in their faces and I know that their grief is different to mine.

I've barely seen my children in two days.  The house is uncomfortably crowded and they are happier to run around outside with their cousins, the weather, thankfully mild.  They eat far too any biscuits, delighted that no one is monitoring their consumption.  My boy pays for it that night when he gets sick all over the bed.

Before my fathers removal to the church, the sitting room is cleared to allow the immediate family say our final goodbyes before the coffin was closed.  The collective sobs and sniffs of us all is an extraordinary sound.  There is something very primal about this, The Sound of Grief.
I dread the shaking of hands in the church at the removal that evening, but my mother had requested that we didn't do this.  I'm relieved.  Instead, mourners file past my father's coffin silently, touching it as they pass.  It is really moving to watch.  Respectful.  So, so many people. 
I assumed that we would have a quiet house after the removal that night, but the house is full again until 11pm.  I get a quiet corner to decide on the readings, Prayers of the Faithful, gifts.  I had intended writing a eulogy to read at the funeral mass, but I can't find the head space to write it.

A 10am start for the funeral mass the following day means that there is no hanging around.  The mass is lovely.  Three priests concelebrate the mass, led by Fr. Mark.  He speaks very directly to my mother and to the rest of the family and offers words of comfort that will stay with my mother particularly.  He jokes about JR and his modest version of South Fork, alongside his mother, my granny, Miss Ellie. 

I hold it together until the choir sang 'Hallelujah'.  I should have known that when we picked it the day before.  I often wondered why my father never joined a choir, because he had a good voice (that he didn't pass on to me).  I remember his singing in the tractor.  'The Fields of Athenry'.  I should have encouraged him more.

My father would have been so proud of his grandchildren trotting down the church to collect the offertory gifts and doing the readings from the altar.  Over the years, his competitive streak came out when comparing who had most grand children amongst his siblings.  A count of eight, including the extra bonus points for twins, were a decent number to talk about. 

I took a notion during the mass that I would write a eulogy about my father after all.  After my father-in-law's funeral years ago, Dad said to me, feeling slightly sorry for himself, 'you will hardly say anything nice about me when I die'.  This was my one and only chance.  I scribble some notes during the funeral mass.

In the graveyard, Fr. Mark calls me over to him, before I spoke, so that I was close to the microphone.  One of my cousins came over to me, saying 'you are standing here all alone', not realising that I was waiting on the microphone.  But I don't feel alone.  I feel surrounded by so many people that cared. 

We can't avoid the shaking of hands after the burial, but it is a cathartic process.  My mother, my three brothers, my fathers brothers and sisters and I all line up.  I look around twice and I cannot see the end of the queue of people waiting to sympathise.  My back aches.  I laugh to myself as someone my father only ever described as 'that fucker' sympathises with me.  If only he knew. 

The kindness.  So many people who travelled to be there.  People who couldn't be there in person, but were in spirit.  The donations to the MS Society.  The cards, messages, shared stories, anyone who spared a thought for this North Meath farmer. 
So much went over my head at the funeral at the time, including the two Guards of Honour, by the IFA and Kilmainhamwood GAA.  Things that mean so much to me now. 

I've experienced the loss of a number of aunts and uncles over recent years, and I thought that I had experienced grief then, but the loss of a parent is grief on a whole other level.  I know that I'm only walking with baby steps through the process now, but it has been a profound and uplifting experience.  John would have loved it.

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