I was thrilled to receive this story from Michelle O’Leary-Sherman about her recent trip to Ireland to attend a funeral. Not because it’s a funeral–I’m very sorry that her aunt died so young–but because it’s an excellent story about how adaptive children are and how much of our death fears are created (or not created) when we are young.
Last week, I traveled with my 6-year-old son to Ireland to attend the funeral of my Auntie who had died of cancer. It was the first time my son had attended a funeral and quite frankly as first times go it couldn’t have been a healthier, more life-affirming funeral experience for a child.
First of all, my cousins and uncle opted for a traditional Irish wake. Let me take care of a little misconception you might have about Irish wakes–the drinking. Yes, drinking is part of the experience, but getting plastered at someone’s wake is considered really, really bad form.
My Auntie was laid out in a coffin in one of the front parlors, with candles and holy water on a table next to her. The purpose was so that those coming to pay their respects could both bless themselves and my Auntie’s remains. I don’t know what, if any, embalming was done (it seemed a little insensitive to ask) but they did not put makeup on her or do any of those things that morticians do to make her look like she was “just sleeping.” She had obviously been washed, groomed and things had been done to prevent the less pleasant aspects of having a deceased person hanging around the house, but the ravages of her illness were immediately obvious. She looked like a dead person.
I did not make my son go up to the coffin and touch her (why oh why do people do that to little kids) but he did see me and other people touch her and kiss her. I told him that it was okay to be scared, but that Auntie wasn’t actually there and what he was seeing was like an old sweater that he had outgrown. Auntie didn’t need her body anymore and had left it behind. I also told him that he didn’t have to go in that room if he didn’t want to.
It took him about a day but after seeing hordes of people go in the room, sit, have a cup of tea or a glass of whiskey, chat with one another and occasionally laugh, he lost his fear of my Auntie’s body. He started to hang out in there with other people. I actually had to shoo him out a couple of times for jumping on the chairs. I could go on forever about the wake and the funeral, but I don’t want to take up too much space. Just sharing an experience that confirms to me that I am definitely in the “I want an old-school home wake like the ones my grandparent use to have” category of deathlings.