The Oldest Rite of Humanity and My Father’s Wake

“Sonny was a very ordinary man and his life passed unnoticed by a wider world. But Sonny did have one advantage over most of us; he knew how to die. And he knew how to do that because his fathers and mothers on the island, wake after wake, had shown him how.”

Armed with questions, a copy of My Father’s Wake and her very own personal death date (note: exactly what a personal death date is and how you get one is revealed in the book), Lucy Coleman Talbot meets Kevin Toolis for breakfast on an unusually bright February morning in London.

Our chat begins with an ancient whisper, the Iliad, a poem written in 800 B.C.E. Kevin explains that the wake is a rite as old as time, one that is not confined to Irish shores. This ancient Greek poem ends with the death of Hector; whose body is brought back to the city of Troy on a four-wheeled wagon, followed by many of his friends ‘wailing and lamenting … as though he was on his road to death’. Once Hector’s body is laid out at home, the women of Troy surround him with their lament song. Hector’s wife Andromache, clasps her husband’s head and expresses her pain, sorrow and fears for the future. As grand and dramatic as this might sound, Kevin doesn’t want us to see this as anything other than ordinary and natural. The oldest rite of humanity.

The death whisper is what we know and feel as humans, a wisdom passed down through generations and learned by the very act of attending funerals (and if possible, wakes).

Whilst reading, My Father’s Wake, it struck me that these small touches;  borrowing chairs from the local pub for his father, Sonny’s, wake, the mass preparation of ham sandwiches and strong tea, or locals helping with Sonny’s burial, carried the most meaning. They are the core of a community, but that not everyone has a community. People die alone every day and for those that don’t, an awkwardness often forms around their death, masked as a fear of intruding or imposing. Kevin says this is the ever-present problem with our ‘Western Death Machine’, a term he coined to capture the industrialisation of death and our death denying culture. He points out that community does not have to be the entire village of Dookinella (the birth, death and final resting place of Sonny) and it can exist through human connections, however small. This, he explains, is what the Irish wake taught him. From a young age attending wakes was normal and this meant life and death wasn’t separated. There is no fear of doing it wrong when you have had so much practice.

The notion that death must be private, a kind of ‘invite only’ event is a new unwritten rule courtesy of our Western Death Machine. When death moved out of the home it’s like the door got locked. Death ritual became less free, it became fixed to a 30-minute time slot and a telephone booking. Kevin’s book begins at Sonny’s deathbed, in the company of his family and friends and people Kevin had never met. The question, ‘What could these people learn from watching my father die?’ became the premise for My Father’s Wake. These people could learn to accept death by experiencing Sonny’s final moments, they could face death first hand, learn from it, and take it with them into the care of their own fathers, mothers and children.

Kevin Toolis as a child on a donkey. Haymaking in Dookinella, 1970s.

I found the death of Kevin’s brother Bernard to be the important turn in the story. He describes it with such poetry:

“Bernard’s death spilled into me. I felt drawn towards something I could not define: human sorrow, lives taken, grief, the mortal aftermath and the realm of the dead.”

It leads Kevin all over the world as he embarks (quite literally) on a death hunt, experiencing famine, war and plague first hand. He found the most complicated and dangerous situations, searching for some kind of meaning, facing death over and over in the most difficult of conditions. Because of this, My Father’s Wake offers not only insight into the wake, ‘the best guide to life you could ever have,’ but also the hardships and pain found in our global community.

Later, reflecting on my meeting with Kevin, I realised that a single thread had woven through our discussion that day: permission. This word embodies the boundaries that need to be broken down within our Western Death Machine. The restrictions we experience must be challenged; be they through legality, social acceptability, politics, the industrialisation of death, even our own denial or mortal fears.

We must grant ourselves and others permission.

Permission to grieve however we want to or need to:

We don’t need to be told that we are doing it right or that we are doing it wrong. There is no acceptable timescale or process and no point of saying “I’m 100% over this”. Grief is complicated and crippling, like the strong rip current off the shores of Dookinella it can be unpredictable and all consuming.

Permission to inhabit space and ask for help when we need it:

For so many death is an isolating experience. Watching someone die in front of you can be harrowing, but it can also be healing and the same goes for facing our own end. We need to know that whatever the circumstances we can reach out and in turn, others need to know they can reach out to us. This can be the smallest of actions: a phone call, a cup of tea, some food, some help with the housework, stopping in the street, a hand shake, some eye contact, maybe even a “sorry for your trouble”.

Permission to die or bury our dead our own way:

In the clutches of death it can feel like there are no options, and sometimes we find there aren’t any. We don’t all have access to unlimited funds or a village community to call upon. Death can be hard on a practical level. Remember, the simplest of acts can be powerful, like Kevin’s sisters breaking the traditional gendered role of pall bearer and opting to carrying their father’s coffin.

Permission to talk about death and confront our own mortality through death:

At Sonny Toolis’ wake Kevin listens to others share stories of deaths that have deeply affected them. The wake serves a function for the community of Dookinella, it creates a space to reflect, open up and contemplate the fragility of life. Can we permit these conversations in our everyday lives? Are we guilty of uncomfortably brushing off an intimate tale of death because it feels morbid or not the right time? How long do people carry stories they desperately need to share, but can’t find the place to? The Irish wake permits life and death to co-exist, at Sonny’s wake his grandchildren play at the foot of his coffin. This is not macabre or irresponsible, this is allowing death to be part of life.

Permission to “take the weight”:

At the close of our chat, Kevin told me that the key is not being afraid to “take the weight”. To physically feel the weight of your dead as they are lowered into the ground is a great privilege, an intimate moment that connects you to your own mortality in a way impossible to explain verbally. It can be the most emotional and affirming of experiences. For you, taking the weight may not be possible, but you can find other ways to make this connection. It might be the washing and wrapping your dead in a shroud, it might be an open casket, it might be a visit to the hospital mortuary, or it might be saying “I want to bring his/her body home” before the funeral. As the Western Death Machine continues to grind on, permit yourself the honour of caring for your own dead.

Read Kevin’s book for a peek into the rites and rituals of an ancient past, My Father’s Wake teaches us that death does not need to be reinvented, we don’t need to find new ways… we need to uncover and rediscover the old ways.

 

By Lucy Coleman Talbot

Personal Death Date: 2066*

*without bravely factoring in all those cigarettes and all that booze.

 

Lucy Coleman Talbot is the co-founder of Death and the Maiden, author of Little Book of Maudism and volunteer at the Crossbones Graveyard, London. She is currently on an MPhil/PhD studentship examining Crossbones at the University of Winchester. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

 

 

 

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  • Susan

    Amazing! I just want to be cremated, put in a cardboard holder, and thrown into the ocean. Nothing else!

  • Kim

    I love the simplicity and intimacy of an open air funeral pyre, much like the one in Crestone, Colorado.

  • Gregory

    I want whatever organs that can be salvaged donated and whatever is left donated to gross anatomy labs , if I could improve healthcare and quality of life for a few people with my organs or by helping make better doctors then it sounds way better than my family paying for my body to be embalmed .

  • Samantha Sandy

    I want my loved ones to know that, regardless of their illness, I want to be there for them. Caring for someone as their life is coming to an end is just as crucial a part of loving someone as it is when they are at their healthiest. No one deserves to feel like a burden, or as if they cannot reach out to their own family and loved ones during the final days of their lives.

    When my grandfather was dying from skin cancer, he didn’t want his grandkids around because he felt he’d be hurting us for us to see him as he was dying. I’m not denying that it would have hurt- it would have been heartbreaking to see him in pain. But what breaks my heart even more is that the man who held me as a baby, who taught me to play baseball, who PAINSTAKINGLY helped me deal with whatever pressing problems five year old me was dealing with, whether it was gluing costumes onto my ballerina paper dolls or listening to my gripes about math homework, thought that my seeing him at his weakest and most vulnerable would make me love him less or remember him as being less than bravest and kindest man I knew.

    It was an opportunity to love and support him that was ultimately unable to happen, and that’s left me with more sadness than anything else, even as I realize that respecting his wishes was important.

    I don’t know how well I’ll rise to the task when my surviving grandparents reach the end of their lives, or when my own parents reach the end of their lives. All I can do is hope that I will love them as well as they have always loved me and that I will be allowed and have the strength to remain at their sides and to care for them after death as they would wish.

  • Lona Madhak

    My mother once took me to the place she grew up, showing me all the places she played and were special to her childhood. Afterwards, she asked that when she passes that I have her cremated and scatter her ashes at the spot she last showed me. I agreed, and it will be my greatest honor to take her there. To take her Home.

  • Samantha Wegner

    I hope that for myself, someone is there to sing the psalms whilst they wash me, someone to make the tea and sandwiches and pour the Champagne (which I will have set aside, great jeroboams of it).
    Get my shrouded corpse to the Church one way or another, for the full incense swaying, water splashing, chanting, crying, celebrating my homecoming to the divine Mass, then back home to the earth.

  • Miranda

    I hope to be buried on my own property. No enbalming at all, just my natural body wrapped in a silk shroud with an orange tree planted above me.

  • Veronica Godinez-Woltman

    When I lost my father over 12 years ago I remember how I hated seeing his hair parted the wrong way at his viewing. To this day I hate that that is a memory that stays in my mind when I think of him. Something so little if a detail but so wrong. All because strangers handled it, not family. Then when an aunt of mine passed away in a more rural part of Mexico I was intrigued how family handled her body more themselves. And her viewing was done very simply on her own ranch with just a bowl of vinegar and a cut onion under her casket during the viewing. Her coffin was later loaded in a pick up truck and we followed down the dirt road as horses on the neighboring properties watched and or ran with the vehicles as we made our way to the little cemetery to bury her quickly without embalming. I loved that her daughters prepared and dressed her and braided her long beautiful grey hair. It was more touching then my family having strangers do that for my father, along with the invasive procedures to simply view him. I knew then that I wanted different for myself. I would love if my own family prepared my body for viewing in our own home. And I would love a green burial as well. Hopefully more cemeteries will be available by the time I go.

    • benedictofzaher

      When we had the viewing for my dad I looked at him and all the makeup on his face did not sit well with me. I did not outwardly say it at the time. Looking back it really bothered me. He was a war veteran who drove a beer truck for 35 years. He was a no nonsense blue collar man and the make up……..sigh

  • Heather Hammonds

    Im somewhat known as the alternative thinker of the family. I’ve taken numerous opportunities to talk to my Mother and Father about their impending ends and try to get a sense of their ideals and wishes. Ive talked to them, and my own children, about the plans for myself and have an advanced directive made up.
    My home is the established gathering point for all our family happenings. Ive expressed my desire to host a home wake for my Mother here, in my home. I want to care for her with my own hands. I want this intimate experience just that, in our space. The space we all gather for celebrations in life and so it should be in death.
    My mother and father have been divorced for some years. He remarried, she hasnt. I feel as though I am the one, out of the 3 of us children (my older sister and younger brother) who will be tasked with arranging things when our Mother dies. I tend to be the middle-woman/go to person for everyone.
    As I grow older, and watch my own children growing older, I prepare for the inevitble and try to help prepare the others. I try to bring them round to the old ways, the ways people have handled and cared for loved ones for all time until recent years (in the grand scheme) when the funeral industry has so successfully stripped this from our rightful hands. Im taking it back for myself and our family.

  • Angela W

    My father’s oldest sibling died from a brain tumor when I was 15, and, soon after, my grandma began to develop dementia and sundowners. It wasn’t until a few years later that I made the connection between grieving and mental health conditions. Since then, I’ve sworn I want to have my family handle my death very differently from how my father and his immediate family have handled deaths. I want my death to be approached with care and steady timing. The haste of burying someone and moving on is not necessary. No matter how long I live to be, I want the time spent honoring me and remembering me to be proportional to my time on this earth. I know I want to have a drawn out and personal death period. I also welcome my family to spend time with my body after I am gone. I grew up Catholic, and Catholics are big believers in that once you die, your soul leaves your body and you are no longer on earth. I feel like that isn’t entirely true and I want my death to reflect that. I want people to keep me close for as long as they need me. I want my family to celebrate me for as long as possible. That might be pretty vain….. but hey, you only live and die once.

  • G.a. Underwood

    Responding to your “In the comment section, tell us… how you would want to be cared for in death.” As an atheist, I suppose that I can view this in a less complicated manner than many. The sweet spot’s in deciding the care that I would prefer, free of the trappings of aligning my wishes with the “protocols” of entering an afterlife elsewhere, while still giving a respectful nod to believers. Because, truthfully, aren’t the loving friends and family your real/only clients?

    I’m unsure of how specific you want responses to be, so I’ll just go for it from here.

    I like the notion of recycling, whether it would be to flora or fowl, but not in some ucky, polluting way. I can’t donate parts, so please do remove anything that might be bad for the environment. (Use your own judgment, obviously.) Spare me your chemicals, your vaults, your fire and ashes and urns. If any of my beloved want a remembrance, offer them a lock of my hair in a nice locket. A bit of makeup would be nice. I’d appreciate that.

    I have no problem with being inside some sort of compostable-type container. Please don’t go to massive expense. You don’t re-decorate a house that’s slated for demolishing. That’s just not sensible.

    Once the dirt’s re-piled above me, if someone thinks they may come back to visit or it’s in a fairly public location, it would be nice to have about 100 pounds of a nice mix of potting soil and fertilizer spread around on top and some flower bulbs or a flowering shrub planted there. Something suitable to the region. Maybe a nice azalea, sunlight levels permitting.

    Most of all, I’d want it remembered that such services are for the living, to help them cope and move on. Hopefully, something about such a simple ‘departure’ might even inspire someone else to appreciate the temporary state of our existence. That taking time out to “smell the flowers” is not a luxury. It’s a necessity to retaining your balance.

  • Jackie O’Sullivan

    I grew up with rousing tales of Irish wakes, and would love the same for me. Whisky, food, tall tales. Alas, such celebrations are difficult in an age of scattered family and friends.

  • Maurice Frank

    While I don’t want to die in a hospital, I also don’t want to die at home. My reason is I don’t want the place of my death to be an unhappy memory for my wife who would have to experience it almost every day. Hospice is probably the best alternative for me. Someone recently told me she wants to die outside. Sounds wonderful, but probably more difficult to arrange a bed in a covered area outdoors. Still, something to think about. Thank you for the interesting article.

  • benedictofzaher

    My lineage is Irish and the wake is how my people were sent off. I plan to have a wake type funeral. I love this book as it cries for us to take death back from the “professionals” It challenges us to take death back and look at it in a different way. What we call traditional funeral is not traditional at all. As a death doula, my hope is to help people see death in a different way where we engage with the final rites and the body. As a culture we have so many unhealthy views about bodies. This includes the body in death.