Early on the last day of May, my father-in-law passed away. Preparations for an Irish funeral are swift, unlike in the UK or the US. While it took 3 weeks to bury my dad in California, it will take no more than 3 days to organize a burial. In rural Ireland, there is no lingering distance from the reality of death; it is immediate and theatrical, involving the entire community.
On Friday morning, we left Dublin in bank holiday traffic, following the hearse home. It took us nearly 7 hours, on what is usually a 2 1/2 hr journey. There was a break for sandwiches and tea in a sweaty bar in the Midlands; a cousin remarked that a hen party had parked beside the hearse. When our cavalcade of cars slowly approached the town, a full garda escort accompanied us toward the farmstead, to fulfill my father-in-law’s last wish to see the cows.
On Saturday there was the reposal: 4 hours of shaking the hands of sympathizers non-stop until my back sore and my hand was cramped and sticky. Thousands offered their respects, attesting to his community service, reputation, and character.
The experience was unreal. When my father died, our neighbors in California didn’t know. His American friends weren’t told except by chance. My mother would stand at the counter in Costco, where she had faithfully shopped in every week, surrounded by hundreds of people, bravely smiling as the clerks cheerfully greeted her by name. It was like my father had never existed in this city where he had lived nearly 30 years. But in this small Irish town, my father had existed, because he was my father; people sympathised in the street, and even sent cards. In a small community, one is less alone with grief, saved by grace in passing gentle gestures.
After the reposal, we waked him in the bar. In the life of a small Irish town, the pub is a community space, where we harvest gossip and gather, celebrate birthdays and engagements and weddings, remember and reunite with loved ones. But the pub is actually our home: his coffin was propped in the back room, surrounded by photographs, while his bedroom upstairs still teemed with the dapper clothes he'll never wear, the fridge emptied of the bacon and tinned peaches he loved. My mother-in-law spent the night sitting by his body, chatting with friends and after everyone had left, she slept on a sofa beside the coffin.
On Sunday, while the coffin was prepared for one last sojourn, we stood in the dark front room of the bar, expectant and solemn, like an audience awaiting the last act of a play. As we filed out into the street, his sister turned and said to me, “This is the last time he’ll ever leave the bar.” People lined the streets, shops were closed, time shuddered still as we inched toward the church behind the hearse.
After mass, I served drinks in the bar, and chatted with people all night, until the last cousin and friend wobbled home. One of Daragh’s cousins remarked on how, when her father died, Harriet didn’t want this night to end.
But the next morning came, and here we are, running errands, planning dinner, walking the dog, listening to the rain.