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Death and Denial

Jon Smith

My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die, by Kevin Toolis, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 275 pp, €16.50, ISBN: 978-1474605236

What separates the Irish and the British? What makes them truly different, as they are today: the legacy of eight hundred years of history, political systems, language? No, more than any of these it is their attitudes to death.

In Ireland, death is a social event, a conversation starter. Funerals draw people from across a community; attendance is virtually mandatory. So important are they that they can be split into five sequential events: the wake, the removal, the funeral Mass, the burial and the post-funeral refreshments. In Britain, death is spoken about in hushed tones, if at all. Indeed it is considered almost impolite to mention it, as if it were something shameful. Funerals are allotted strict time slots and the attendance of anyone other than a relative or close friend would be regarded by the immediate family as unspeakably intrusive. The British journalist Virginia Ironside, in her 1997 study of death and grief “You’ll Get Over It”: The Rage of Bereavement, writes: “Death is a taboo subject. The subject makes us shudder. ‘How gloomy!’ people exclaim if we bring up the subject.” It is laughable to imagine applying this observation to the Irish.

The culture gap can also be seen in how we commemorate the dead. In Britain, where 75 per cent of funerals are cremations, ashes are often anonymously tipped in crematorium flowerbeds. In Ireland, burial and headstone are still the norm, permanent memorials to impermanence. In my home city of Leeds, the main Catholic graveyard, filled with the remains of Irish immigrants, features headstones with comforting words and verses from the Gospel. Some have built-in marble benches, photographs of the deceased, even etchings of their sports team’s crest. In the city centre, where many of my father’s English ancestors are buried, the graveyards are long gone, built over with faceless offices, bars and traffic-choked roads. Like the grimy factories where they worked, they are no longer part of the city’s landscape.

The Irish openness about death is writ large to everyone driving into Dublin Airport: a sign baldly states “MORTUARY”. Contrast this with the attitude at Leeds General Infirmary, where I worked as a porter for a summer. When a patient died, a nurse would call and ask for them to be taken to “Ward 13”. The mortuary itself did not even have this euphemistic title; just a plain dark blue double-door.

This gulf between Irish and British death culture is obvious to the journalist Kevin Toolis, who has experienced both. Born and raised in Scotland to parents from Co Mayo, he believes one of these ways of approaching death is correct, and he will show you how it should be done. My Father’s Wake is in part a memoir, but it comes across more like a “how to” book. In his words: “All of us need to find a way to handle death. It will be a lot easier if we just copy what the Irish already do.” Set against this is what he calls, in Ominous Capital Letters, the Western Death Machine, or the Whisper Death World: “… for the last two centuries, Western society has slowly striven and largely succeeded in removing the dead and dying from public sight. We have pulled the curtains across, privatised our mortality and turned death into a whisper.” This cold, detached way of dealing with death is, he argues, dominant in “Anglo Saxon Land” (less a reference to ancient Germanic peoples than the traditional code for English and heartless). It’s at the inhabitants of this world that My Father’s Wake is aimed, and he is determined to challenge them:

Most adult Westerners have never seen or touched a human corpse.
Have you?
Count off the real dead bodies you have seen on your fingers.
If the dead and the sun are life’s constants, how can the sight of the deceased be so rare you can count the cadavers you’ve seen on one hand?

Presumably this isn’t the case for many Irish readers. Likewise, when Toolis asks what the reader would think if “the whole neighbourhood, your colleagues from work, plus a few more strangers who you’ve never met” turned up at their mother’s funeral. If they were Irish, they would think it was normal.

Contrasted with the Western Death Machine is the death and funeral of Toolis’s father, Sonny, in Dookinella – on Achill, referred to here obliquely only as “the island”. On his death bed, the old man is visited round-the-clock by relatives and well-wishers; women keen over his dead body; there is a wake with an open coffin.

My Father’s Wake opens with Sonny close to death, then follows Toolis walking down to the roaring Atlantic, where the “power of the scourging tide is rewritten in ever-changing stone patterns on the rampart embankment twice daily”. The island is “old, older than human time, dating long before the fossil era, the bedrock 950 million years old”. It’s an introduction that seems to imply that what follows springs from a place of ancient wisdom: if not handed down on stone tablets from God then written in the rocks by the elements.

Scattered throughout are references to the Iliad. Toolis insists death is normal, part of everyday life. But at the same time the Irish way of doing things is made, by association, to appear heroic and time-honoured. A woman washes Sonny’s body “in much the same way the Trojan women washed Hector’s”; the wake is a rite that “survived the fall of Troy”; the gathering of men at his father’s wake is “Hector’s quorum”; a game he plays with friends at another wake is “an echo of the funeral games played by the ancient Greeks in the Iliad”. A reference to his father’s “spartan bedroom” makes the reader instinctively wonder if that S was supposed have been capitalised. This is a work at times both hectoring and Hectoring.

For Toolis, looking at a dead body and exposure to death is an “inoculation”: “a piece of armour to carry around with you in preparation for the moment when you personally need to deal with death”. He dismisses the idea of refusing to see a body in order to remember the deceased as they were alive as a “morally crippling cliché”. His father’s demise is the model but it is almost a John Hinde postcard version of death: the man at the end of a long life surrounded by loving family buried in the community’s tradition. Sonny provides the focus of this book but his death is not the only one. When Toolis was eighteen his older brother Bernard died of leukaemia; his death set off a “hand grenade of rage and grief”. The chapter detailing his illness – an “agony without purpose” – and death is the most affecting and it is no coincidence that it is the least didactic. Anyone who has experienced a sudden bereavement will recognise Toolis’s sensations on the drive home from the hospital after his brother dies:

The colours through the windscreen seemed so bright, the details achingly vivid and untouchable, as if we were seeing this city, this world, for the first time. As if we were aliens who had just arrived on this other planet identical to Earth, with schoolchildren in uniform, mothers with prams, men in suits, workmen with ladders and cars and shops. And although everything looked the same, in your heart you knew it wasn’t. The atmosphere outside the car was toxic, poisonous.

There is no wake for Bernard. Toolis goes to see his body, but it brings no comfort: “I could not believe this human-shaped stone had ever been him.” He becomes an “angry survivor”, raging against the platitudes that surround death: “The will to live. You hear that phrase a lot … As if pap psychology and a ‘positive attitude’ was a viable defence against cellular mitosis.”

The premature death of Toolis’s brother works against his earlier insistence on making readers confront their own mortality by calculating their “death date”, based on current life expectancy (“Did you actually write the date down? … Here’s another space to have a go.”). As he knows and admits, there is no guarantee you will get anywhere near it.

Toolis himself had an early lesson in mortality when he contracted tuberculosis as a child. He is treated in a hospital’s “male chest” ward, with men around him dying of lung cancer (but still allowed their own smoking lounge). Again, when he is not trying to deliver a lesson, he paints vivid pictures in prose. He is particularly taken with his ward mate Jimmy, a suave figure in a tartan dressing gown who took his smoking breaks “with nonchalant grace”:

He would dispense with his oxygen mask and slowly stroll over as if on his way to a good night out … Jimmy’s hands would move together and his head lower in perfect synchronicity like a scene from a Humphrey Bogart movie. The lighter would stroke. A burst of flame. Jimmy would suck on the cigarette tip and the end would flare red. This was Jimmy’s favourite moment: a point of happiness, a re-enactment of his old life beyond these confines. Then, as the smoke hit the last bit of functioning lung, he’d burst out in splutters, choking wheezing coughs, a rasping rat-ta-tat-tat of suffocations.

These episodes aside, the Irish-British contrast forms the core of My Father’s Wake. It would, however, have been interesting to see Toolis turn his withering eye on another part of the so-called Whisper Death World, the largely American subculture of “transhumanists”, a group which does not so much ignore death as pretend it is an obstacle that can be overcome with technology, whether through cryogenics or “uploading” the mind, as recounted in Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine (2017).

Toolis’s conclusion is choppy, as if it can’t quite support the weight that has been stored up for it: again, the reader is advised to look at a dead body. Other one-paragraph bursts of advice include: take your children to funerals, make love after a funeral “to satiate the animal hunger inside you”, speak of the dead who shaped your life more often. The key passage, though, goes to the heart of the Irish-British divide:

Go out of your way to cross the office floor and shake the hand of the bereaved and offer your condolences. They won’t be surprised or upset because they already are grieving. Offer whatever help you can.

This is the most valuable lesson to his readers in “Anglo Saxon Land”, at least judging by my own experience. Like Toolis, I have experienced the death culture on both sides of the Irish Sea – born and raised in England but living in Ireland for the past seven years. The contrast in reactions when my father died two years ago exemplified the difference. I have long-time English friends, people who knew my father, who have never mentioned his death to me, nor I to them. At work in Dublin, almost everyone in the office came over to shake my hand and express condolences. Some shared their own memories of the trauma of losing a parent. It was completely unexpected but comforting; the unspoken message being: you are not alone.

So unusual is it for the British to be open about death that when the English poet Blake Morrison wrote a candid account of his father’s death in And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993), he found himself deluged with correspondence from bereaved readers expressing gratitude and sharing their stories. “They just wanted me to know the book was therapeutic – ‘which at £14.99 is cheap at the price’,” he wrote in the 2006 afterword. “I felt like an agony aunt, when I’d once dreamed of being TS Eliot.”

My Father’s Wake is not so therapeutic; Morrison describes how his father dies and how it affects him; Toolis holds up the rituals of his father’s death as an example. There is an element of taking comfort in the familiar: the wake, the removal, the tradition of kicking over the chairs that the coffin has been standing on outside the house. But these would surely seem odd and alienating to anyone not used to them. He praises the practice of keening, which only reminded me of my dying father’s instruction that there be “no weeping and wailing” in his final moments. This was every bit as much a part of his tradition as a no-nonsense Yorkshireman as keening was to the people of Achill.

Where Toolis is full of certainty, other authors who have written about the death of a parent or spouse express how it has shaken them and made them question their assumptions. In his memoir Patrimony (1991), Philip Roth describes his horror at seeing his father throwing out his dead mother’s clothes the minute he returns from her funeral:

It was my father’s primitivism that stunned me. Standing all alone emptying her drawers and her closets, he seemed driven by some instinct that might be natural to a wild beast or an aboriginal tribesman but ran counter to just about every mourning rite that had evolved in civilised societies to mitigate the sense of loss among those who survive the death of a loved one. Yet there was also something almost admirable in this pitilessly realistic determination to acknowledge, instantaneously, that he was now an old man living alone and that symbolic relics were no substitute for the companion of fifty-five years. It seemed to me that it was not out of fear of her things and their ghostlike power that he wanted to rid the apartment of them without delay – to bury them now, too – but because he refused to sidestep the most brutal of all facts.

Yet Roth’s father “fled” from his wife’s corpse: an act that would fail the Toolis test.

In The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), Joan Didion, in a contrast with Roth noted by Ironside, visits her husband John Gregory Dunne’s body but cannot bring herself to give away his shoes: “I stood there for a moment, then realised why: he would need shoes if he was to return. The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.”

Toolis reflects on the physical fact of death but seldom looks beyond to grief. He reports from the Troubles and war zones, a “journalistic soldier” in the hope of finding more inoculation by exposure to death. “Fragments would never teach me how to live with death in my own ordinary life,” he concludes when it fails. But death and loss are different things; the latter is much harder to comprehend.

It would be unfair to criticise Toolis for his approach here; or else it would be were it not for the fact that he so insistently holds up his own experience s a template. He also misses one fundamental similarity between Irish and British approaches to death. They come at it from entirely different directions but both end up treating it with – pun unavoidable – a deadening effect. The British way does it through repression, the Irish through ritual. The wake, the removal, the funeral, the burial, the month’s mind, the anniversary Mass: the routines are prescribed and repeated by rote. My mother, raised in England by Irish parents, recalls her consternation at her grandmother’s wake in Tipperary in the 1950s. The well-wishers came in, said a quick prayer, then sat around chatting about cattle prices and the weather. The conversation at a wake Toolis attends at the age of seven turns to “who had emigrated and what had happened to them. How the woman, a childhood friend, was now married and living away somewhere in England and how many children she had.”

Death is a paradox: an everyday occurrence but one that is also obstinately difficult to comprehend or accept. In the case of a parental death, it is a heavy reminder of our own mortality. Toolis comes close to a Buddhist understanding of this impermanence, opening one chapter: “You cannot step twice into the same river, ever newer waters flow around and beneath your feet.” But then it’s back to Troy and the great Irish way of doing death.

The last parental lesson is “how to die”, he says elsewhere. He is right to describe it as a lesson: but it is a lesson that teaches you that you will die rather than showing you how to do it. A parental death is a harsh lesson, but looking at death and dead bodies is no more preparation for it than looking at Everest means you have scaled it. This is a lesson that can’t be prepared for; the homework cannot be done in advance. It is the harsh reality that cuts through British reserve and Irish ritual: one thing that unavoidably unites both sides of that cultural divide and beyond.


Jon Smith is an Irish Times journalist.



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