The phone call came at 3.00am on Monday that Nana had passed into the other room. This wasn’t a shock as we had been waiting for the news following a fall 2 weeks before. The family made their arrangements, flights booked from all over Europe. The gathering of the clan had begun. The wake was to be held at Nana’s house for all her friends and family to come and say their farewells and tell their stories over a tipple or a cup of tea. The scene was set by the tradition of our ancestors.
Never having been to a wake before I was apprehensive of the unknown, would I be able to keep it together? would I make a fool of myself? would it be scary? I just didn’t know what to expect and grief is such a selfish emotion it’s all about the “I”. “I’m going to miss them so much” “What will I do with out them? ” and the big one was could I handle seeing Nana dead? At my age I had never seen a dead body. My children went to visit Nana after her fall being told they didn’t know how long she would last, and I had also worried about that too, would if be too much for them? would it be a shock? Is it the best for them? should I let them go? or should I let them remember her as her former self?
What happened was the exact opposite of all my fears. When they returned from visiting, of course they told of the initial grief and upset of seeing their Nana so poorly and the reality of her fate. But what really came out of the visit where wonderful stories of closure. Pictures of my daughter holding her hand whilst the family were sat round chatting, my son kissing her forehead and stroking her cheek. The special time they had on their own with her or just time to come to terms with the reality of impending passing. The funny stories told by family and friends and relayed to others that had not heard them before, the personal experiences of relationships with a woman who was so important to each and every one of us. I came to the conclusion that in fact my children had been very fortunate to experience the opportunity to say their farewells in such a way that many of us never get.
The wake took place in a house I have been visiting for over 25 years and was now looking like a time capsule. In the centre of the room the coffin open was Nana. My ex sister-in-law took my hand and said doesn’t she look tiny? and explained how they had changed her lipstick because it wasn’t a colour that Nana would have worn and how her hairdresser was coming round because Nana always had large hair which now it definitely wasn’t. I cried but at the same time I smiled. I smiled at the belonging that was still there in the physical sense even though she was definitely not there any more. The fact that the people around her knew what she would have wanted and how she would have wanted to be seen. Simple but important things like the colour of her lip stick. The fact that her grandchildren had not thought twice about changing the undertakers makeup, the fact that they had ownership of this ritual and it was a proud and moving transition taking place.
You may have gathered by now that this was an Irish funeral and may seem all very personal to you but this is my point. I understand other countries traditions are similar but here I don’t know many people who have experienced death properly, everyone I know knows somebody that died a relative, a friend, a colleague but when talking about it all seem very detached from it. There seem to be lots of reasons for this detachment. It seems with modern medicine we are all surviving a lot more and living a lot longer and healthier which can only be a good thing. We are living out our lives in semi sheltered homes, nursing homes, using carers and generally becoming more isolated from the family unit.
We get phone calls from the hospitals or the care homes to tell us of a departure and before we know it the cogs of the Capitalist funeral system starts to roll. They come they tell us how they are “experts” in “taking care of the body” “cleansing” and “preparing”. They tell us how they will give their “best service” to your “loved ones”. You hear the words respect and peaceful. They give us the impression that we are not to be “trusted” as they are. So before you have even got chance to process the idea that you loved one has died, before the relatives have all been informed the body has been “removed” to the Funeral parlour where the “Experts” will do what we have been doing for thousands of years. Preparing our dead. They take them telling you that they will make this difficult time as easy as possible because they are in the business. As sympathetically as possible they will show you the caskets, the linings, the soft furnishings, along with the price ranges. They will tune you in to the slick and smooth machine of laying your dead to rest. So from the last time we see them or speak to them and sometimes the point of death they are taken away and we never see them again.
The machine seems to have stolen death from us. Wonder why death is so sensationalised in the press, in films and in the news the wars, beheaded hostages, accidents and murders. This is because we really don’t know what death is anymore. We have lost a very important part of the human story. I remember reading an article a while ago about a person that had died alone and thinking that it is so wrong to have to die alone, unless of course we chose it. But to die with nobody by your side or holding your hand. But that is another issue. The issue here is about saying our goodbyes about seeing the fulfilment of a life by finishing with a death. An ending that is about the person, the memories and the send off.
I think we need to reclaim death. It is healthy and natural to grieve to feel loss to share that with others that feel the same. It is important to celebrate the life and impact of the deceased upon your lives. This is about you and what we need to do to process and accept death. We have somehow lost sight of that and allowed this important ritual to be stolen from us. We need to remember how important death is and not fear the unknown and familiarise ourselves with our eventuality. Death is as important as birth if not more if only so we appreciate the time we have left.
A grieving Hampstead mum