Courtesy of The Guardian.com | By Kevin McKenna | Originally Published 06.03.2018 | Posted 07.11.2018
The Co-Op’s new cremation service should making us focus on the truth of dying
I fear that death has lately become something of an inconvenience in a society where the desire for instant gratification exists alongside the need to live life to the max. I’m not saying that death in a previous and less complicated era had been welcomed in and invited to pull up a seat by the fire. Merely, that many of us lived our lives while keeping a beady eye on death; acknowledging its inevitability and perhaps subliminally making plans to deal with it even from an early age when it was your turn to be framed in its silhouette.
Now we seem reluctant to acknowledge its existence at all; as if by uttering its name and admitting to its inevitability will diminish the intensity of this bacchanal we’re all having. People don’t die any longer; they merely “pass away” or “depart”. We now reach for any conjugation that avoids the need to say that Uncle Jimmy has actually died. This in turn has bred a glossary of inauthentic phrases deployed to skirt around the issue.
One of these is that wretched phrase “coming to terms with…” Thus the bereaved are made to think that there will come a time when they will eventually “deal with” the death of their loved one, no matter how tragic and untimely it is. We are unwilling to consider the possibility that the bereaved are capable of getting on with their lives without constantly feeling the pressure to “come to terms with” their loss.
Now the death industry itself has begun to turn against the very event that sustains it. Co-op Funeralcare has announced that it will be rolling out “direct cremation” services for those among us who desire their funeral to be an unfussy and stripped-back affair. These come in at not much over a grand a pop and involve a rudimentary and utilitarian approach to your final departure. One minute there you are having just woken up dead and the next minute a wee jar of your ashes is being delivered to your next of kin before you can say “Come on baby, don’t fear the Reaper”.
It’s almost as if, having lived life like there was no tomorrow, you’re a bit embarrassed that death has finally caught up with you. You don’t want people to dwell on the fact that you’re mortal after all and give death the pleasure of being all triumphant throughout a week of mourning and wearing black.
My Father’s Wake, written by the Irish journalist and author Kevin Toolis, is the best book I’ve read in many years. In it, Toolis examines the essential humanity and the human necessity of the ancient rites and ceremonials that surround death in the Ireland of his childhood and young adulthood. Many of them are observed in the death of his brother, Bernard, and his father, Sonny. “The mystery of Sonny’s life was laid out in his freshly cooling corpse, in the actions of his life as it was lived, not dreamed, in the works of his once dirt-encrusted hands and our memories of his fathering. Sonny’s life as son, husband and father had at least been a full measure, a life lived. Sonny’s coming wake could be sad but it would never be tragic.” It bears witness to the victory of life and love over death even while according it due reverence and respect.
Funerals can be joyful or at least profound affairs (always depending on the nature of the death) where they celebrate life and rekindle happy memories. There are also practical benefits. When I was a student, there were many occasions when food and drink were hard to procure. Happily, I belonged to a big Irish Catholic family where you were never far away from the death of a distant relative, especially during a hard winter. And so I and some of my friends eagerly attended each and every funeral of relatives and sometimes merely friends of relatives. On these occasions, you were guaranteed a right good feed and the presence of a benevolent uncle who would see to all your alcohol needs. No one ever asked if you were on the guest list because, let’s be honest here, the family of the deceased want to see as many people mourning their loved one as possible. They derive comfort from his apparent popularity.
Note to all members of my family reading this: when it’s my turn to die, I don’t give a toss how many funeral-crashers are helping themselves to the sausage rolls and the free swally. And if I’m fortunate enough to be permitted advance notice of my demise I might even stick a few hundred quid behind the bar.
• Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist