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Mass graves, bodysnatchers and crematoriums: Ireland's history with death

The authors of Grave Matters talk about death through the ages.

Lisa Marie Griffith and Ciarán Wallace

IN IRELAND, WE think we do death well. We honour our dead and know how to hold a good funeral.

But we are more removed from the process of death and burial today then we have ever been in the past. People die in hospitals away from their homes, wakes are less common, and our period of mourning is substantially shorter.

Our attitudes and rituals around death have changed dramatically since the medieval period. A delve into how these practices can tell us a lot about how Irish society has changed.

No proper burial

In the Middle Ages, only the exceptionally wealthy had marked graves. The elite were interred in churches while the poor were buried outside, often in mass graves like St Audeon’s cemetery (now disused).

The Reformation had an enormous impact on how people were buried. The Anglican Church of Ireland administered Dublin’s parish burial grounds and all burials, of whatever denomination, paid a fee to the local minister.

All non-Anglican congregations were obliged to bury their dead in parish graveyards belonging to the established church; there were no Catholic graveyards. With goodwill and discretion, Catholic interments could be conducted – the priest wearing ordinary clothes and the vicar turning a blind eye.

St Michan's Crypts, Dublin

Body snatchers

From the 17th century, Dublin’s many medical schools provided a lucrative market for cadavers. Body snatchers, or sack ’em ups, were kept busy providing corpses not only to Trinity College, the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Surgeons but also to foreign markets.

Robert Knox, the doctor at the centre of the infamous Burke and O’Hare killings in Edinburgh, imported some of his bodies from Dublin.

Body snatchers sought the freshest corpses, so people protected the bodies of their loved ones by standing guard over the grave, day and night, immediately after burial. Some Irish graveyards even constructed a ‘mort safe’, or cage, to enclose fresh graves.

Better burials

In the 18th century, Ireland’s expanding economy led to more disposable income for the middle and the lower classes, one result of which was an increase in burial headstones for Dublin’s artisan and working classes. Those who could not afford a burial still had their loved ones interred outside the city in Bully’s Acre at Kilmainham.

Despite the establishment of new hospitals, such as the Lying-In Hospital (1745), the vast majority of Dubliners still received medical treatment, and died, at home.

By the early-19th century, the Catholic middle class demanded greater equality. In 1823, a dispute arose when a church sexton in St Kevin’s Graveyard (just off Camden Street) refused to let a priest say prayers during a Catholic burial. Daniel O’Connell intervened, insisting there was no legal impediment preventing Catholics establishing their own cemetery.

This led to the foundation of Golden Bridge and Glasnevin cemeteries which were open to all denominations.

The creation of undertakers and death portraits

As the city expanded during the 19th century, new cemeteries emerged beyond the canals at Dean’s Grange and Mount Jerome. Like Glasnevin, these ‘garden cemeteries’ provided much-needed space for (suitably dignified) recreation.

But they also raised the problem of transporting bodies from homes and city churches; therefore the modern funeral undertaker emerged to meet this need.

Hugenot Cemetery Merrion Row, Dublin

Undertakers offered an ever-increasing range of services from basic transport and the coffin itself to flowers, death notices in the press, an organist for the funeral service and memorial cards afterwards. Although wakes still happened in many homes, the undertaker took responsibility on behalf of the family for the funeral and burial.

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Child mortality figures remained high throughout the Victorian period, and some parents turned to the new technology of photography to help them in their grief. Dublin studios took portraits of the young dead to create mementoes for the bereaved.

This may seem like a ghoulish practice today, but many families had no likeness to remember their children by, so these photographs brought much comfort.

Death of the wake and rise of the crematorium

Funeral practices changed substantially in the 20th century. Undertakers’ records show a clear shift from people dying at home to deaths in hospitals and hospices.

The traditional wake declined, as did the removal, the practice of removing the coffin from the hospital or family home to the church the night before the funeral. This is now a rare occurrence in the city.

The construction of a crematorium at Glasnevin in 1982 brought a further change; over half of all Dublin funerals now choose this cheaper option, introducing funerary urns and columbarium walls to our vocabulary.

The sombre Victorian garden cemeteries gave way to lawn cemeteries at Newlands Cross, Dardistown, and Bohernabreena. Modern, practical, though perhaps more bleak, most of us will probably end up amongst their orderly rows.

While death is certain, and eternity unknowable, what happens in between is constantly evolving.

Lisa Marie Griffith and Ciarán Wallace are authors of Grave Matters: Death and Dying in Dublin, 1500 to the Present, which will be available in all good bookshops and can be bought online from 10 August.

About the author:

Lisa Marie Griffith and Ciarán Wallace

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