Death Becomes Her

In Ireland, death, like life, is all about impressing the neighbors

By Clodagh McCoole

I don’t want to brag but I do think the Irish do death better than anyone else. The French may have coined the phrase “Grand Finale” but I grew up with phrases like:
“She looked beautiful in death”
“Didn’t he get a great send-off?”
And a special of mine: “Death becomes her.”

Death sits easily with the Irish. I think the real reason we love it is that it allows us to “love our neighbor” without actually suffering them. Irish funerals are a way of life. There are hordes of women who take time out to swell the crowd at a funeral, helping to create “a great send-off.” During my childhood in Limerick, my father neatly circumvented using up “sick days” by keeping abreast of the week’s funerals. And while the “Irish wake” seems to have suffered the ravages of modern time-management, post-funeral parties are still well-attended.

Eternal rhymes

There is something about death that brings out the latent creative in most Irish people. Local papers swell with pages of poetry about loved ones. If “Mammy and Daddy” have seen fit to put pen to paper, you can bet that there will be more rhymes from Auntie Jean, Granny B., cousin Mary and the boys.

Secretly, I hope I will be the recipient of a public sonnet some day. At the very least, I hope to make the airwaves. From 4pm-5pm each afternoon, local radio in Ireland runs through the funerals for the following day. It makes riveting listening. Hold the pop charts, forget world news; there is nothing that draws the listeners in Ireland like a death notice.

On a recent trip from my home in the US back to Ireland, I strolled through a graveyard. For a moment, I thought I had taken a wrong turn. Gone were the grey Celtic crosses of yesteryear; replaced by gleaming marble in every imaginable hue. The little wreaths of plastic flowers contained in plastic bubbles had been replaced by enormous displays of flowers that spelled out “Grandad” and “Nana.” And then there were little windmills whizzing around in the breeze. So much life in a place of death! It was positively electric.

Deadly eyeshadow

Death is the perfect opportunity for re-invention, but we sometimes get carried away with accessories. My granny is still doing somersaults in the grave over the blue eyeshadow and the neckscarf that made her look like an Aer Lingus air hostess. Then there are the selective biographies, otherwise known as eulogies, in the local paper. How wonderful they all sound!

Death, like life, is all about impressing the neighbors. My granny’s view was that if you fed them well after a funeral, all would be forgiven. Her own son insisted on pulling the whole funeral cortege into the pub for a pit stop en route to burying her, leaving her lying outside in the hearse.

My favorite Irish story is one of a husband lying on his death-bed, moments away from his final gasp. His wife is downstairs in the kitchen baking. He is touched when he smells freshly-baked scones. “She really loves me,” he thinks to himself. He struggles out of bed and down the stairs, hoping to enjoy a taste. As he reaches to take a scone, she slaps his hand away saying: “Get your hands off. Those are for the funeral.”

And so here we are at the end. The day is half-over and I haven’t even read the death notices yet. On the other hand, I’ve passed the time by giving some thought to my own epitaph. You’ve guessed it: “Death becomes her.”

Clodagh McCoole grew up in Limerick, and now lives in New England.