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‘A funeral should sum up a person’s life. There are tears, but laughter too’

Father Seamus Ahearne writes about the challenges, pressures – and the lessons he has learned from presiding over many funerals.

Fr Seamus Ahearne

IT WAS THIS year that Aylan Kurdi’s little body was found on a Turkish beach. The image startled Europe at the enormity of the refugee crisis.

Karen Buckley was murdered in Glasgow and she summed up the concern of every parent when the ‘children’ are out at night.

The students in Berkeley fell from the balcony and their stories and funerals made the headlines. Lorna Carty was caught up in the Tunisian terrorist attack and her funeral spoke to us of the vulnerability of our world today. Tony Golden answered a call as a Garda in Omeath and was shot dead. His State funeral gathered thousands. There was also the fire in Carrickmines, which claimed ten lives.

Such deaths affect all of us. But every death is a shock, however expected or unexpected it is.

Death and a funeral is a privileged moment and a daunting challenge for us in a parish community. Every person is special. Each one has a story. A funeral has to catch and respect the uniqueness of a life. No funeral can ever be the same as another. Nothing can be routine. There is no pro-forma routine for a funeral. Every person is too precious for that.

The rituals of the Church still help to carry the mystery of death. This remains true even though most people now have little contact with Church or little grasp of the language of Church. It is an enormous demand to stretch our creative ability to ensure that every family feels totally welcomed.

The response we make has to explore the depths of our humanity.

People are numb

The first call comes to us either from the family or from the undertaker. Most people don’t know what to do. We are used to planning and helping with funerals. We can advise. We can help.

We know also that many people are numb at the early news and need time to settle a little before any real planning. Our place then is to be at ease in the home. We are always humbled by being let into the heart of the homes and into the intimacy of family life. The old notion of a wake is still precious.

We must create a space where people can talk. It takes time. Usually someone emerges who can be the family ‘leader.’ For us it usually takes about six visits to a home before the funeral is fully prepared and everyone is listened to.

What does that mean? Up to twenty people can find a ‘job’ to do. Some can read. Some can light candles or place the book, photo, cross on the coffin or bring up gifts. The stories are told. The funeral becomes personal. The readings reflect the person. We create prayers and a Litany which sum the relationships of a person’s life and the colour of their personality. We always work as a team (parish funeral team). We visit as a pair. It is easier too if it is mixed – a female and male.

People relate to us differently. There is an ease and a gentleness and a sensitivity. Almost everyone wants ‘Prayer’ in the house or in the funeral parlour the evening before. We never use ‘the book’. We create a profile which sums up a life with a network of relationships: work, interests, characteristics. There are tears always. But laughter happens too. And there is a further opportunity for people to talk. That becomes real prayer.

By the morning, people feel able to face the day. We also tell everyone that it is our job to coordinate. We call out the names at the funeral Mass.

No one has to remember. We always have someone to stand with the person doing any job. There is a gentleness and a warmth and a care. There has to be.

We never argue about music

The music too matters. We like live music. We prefer if it is gentle and calming and then it holds people together. It carries the emotions. Some want music that can be raucous and very emotional. That can be overwhelming. However, we never argue about music.

What is most striking about the day of a funeral is this: the church is packed. The silence is outstanding. I think we manage to celebrate in a very inclusive way. We cannot be too ‘churchy’. We must adjust to them and to their experience of this person and of life. Their language has to be met. We cannot throw ‘holy words’ at people. That is insulting and wrong.

In a real and true sense: the Word has to become flesh. God has to be found in their lives. God has to speak to them in a language that they understand. We cannot be patronising or ever use the situation to ‘get at people’. Every word has to be scripted because every name matters.

There is no room for mistakes. This is very serious.

Somehow, something strange and good always happens. And why does it happen? Because we stretch our minds and imaginations to move into the lives of those there and we are the visitors to their lives and not vice-versa. It pushes us to the limits.

But the overall demand is this: This person has lived. This family is bereaved. We are in the midst of something too big for us. Every funeral recalls personal losses and other such moments. We know that what is happening here; it will happen us. We are on dangerous ground and the depths of our humanity are touched. At the grave or crematorium – the same humility, respect, gentleness continues. We can’t hide in a holy book.

The pain doesn’t go away 

What happens afterwards? We drop into the home. We never trivialise death by saying that ‘time is a great healer’. It isn’t. This pain doesn’t go away.

One of the most important celebrations in our Church happens then on the 2 November when all the bereaved families are invited to a service. The sense of togetherness, the sense of a shared grief, the sense of a supportive community touches everyone. We furthermore make a big occasion of the month’s mind and the first anniversary.

What are the difficulties for us? What is the effect on us?

It is draining. We feel very inadequate. How can we find the words or the service that can somehow lift and carry people?

All we do know is this: We find a place in the homes of the community by how we are at funerals. These are the most important moments of life. We either belong or don’t in how we do things and how we are.

We don’t drop in as experts. No one is an expert in death. Everyone is lost for words. We all struggle to make sense of the moment and to do the best we can. We are indeed privileged and blessed by the openness that we meet.

We are at home in the homes. And then that is where God is. The Church still can provide a scaffolding to carry the event of death which is beyond our words and our understanding. A funeral is about the person who has died but is for the people who are bereaved.

Fr Seamus Ahearne presides over Rivermount Parish, Finglas. 

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