As an undertaking family, the mortuary became an extension of our home. Death was normal, writes ELAINE BYRNE in the IRISH TIMES JUNE 8 2010
BEFORE WE built our funeral home, we planted potatoes in the top field. Delicately measured rows of hand ploughed drills with seeds waiting to grow. They were then proudly harvested in the hour before dinner with my grandfather’s ragged three-pronged fork. When the frost threatened to come, the potatoes were piled deep into big hairy bags and stored in one of the stony farmsheds away from the sow pigs.
That field was full of life.
Flowery carrots and overgrown lettuce. Wild parsley and bulbs of swollen onions. The leafy cabbage that was never eaten. Seven children and two parents with hands of clay and holey buckets with hopes that the rain would starve.
The concrete put an end to that.
Instead now, a small bungalow absent of a chimney but with an empty room to mourn, another for a hearse to wait and one with naked coffins piled high.
Before the field died we tended to the dead in a room off our kitchen. But people wanted formality instead of their bedrooms and Sunday best suits rather than the monotonous brown holy habits with a square picture of Jesus on their breast. The dead had demands that our ancestral undertakers had never contemplated. So, the potato field was scarified to build a funeral home to accommodate this changing Ireland.
And in turn, that room beside the kitchen was converted into an extension of our upstairs pub. We made the new bar counter from the sliced wood of the fallen trees where the mortuary now lay.
At the weekends it hosted a couple of hundred locals who travelled the 10 mile radius to listen to the rebel songs by the bands Barley Wine, Róisín Dubh, Pluck the Duck, The Smurfs, Wallop the Cat and others.
It was here that the local Wicklow club championship defeats and victories were commiserated and celebrated in equal measure. The birthday parties, hen nights and silver wedding anniversaries also took place. On the December weekdays close to Christmas, the plucked turkeys hung from the rafters waiting to be won in the epic card games of forty-five that became the niggling talking points of the early spring.
Back then all this seemed perfectly ordinary.
The field of food was transformed into a cold room with lily flowers where the dead rested before their final journey. Instead of coffins on the stone floor beside the kitchen, our neighbours courted and waltzed, with pleas for more when the first notes of Amhrán na bhFiann aired. Life converted into death and mortality was swapped for a typical weekend in a rural Irish pub.
The death was normal. People always died. We got on with life.
With six younger siblings and a home sandwiched within a country pub, the funeral home became my refuge for study. It was dead quiet. The room of stacked coffins was turned into an artificial staircase to the attic and adapted into a miniature library.
When not occupied by the dressed coffin, furnished with the solemn body and the smell of white wax candles with the complementary mourners, my desk lay in the wake room.
As the days to the Leaving Cert approached, the intrusion of death was keenly detested. Not because someone had died but that it limited where study could be conducted uninterrupted.
Picking potatoes was replaced by physics equations. The mortuary became an extension of the home. I got so used to the dead that my history essays about Michael Davitt, the Weimar Republic and Seán Lemass were rehearsed out loud to them, when we were alone, from the wonderful wooden pulpit that the local Protestant church had donated to us.
The dead were part and parcel of my growing up. They were the bodies waiting for the ritual of religion and the grief of loved ones. Our job was to facilitate that. This intermarriage between life and death.
In truth, this learned inbred acceptance of death is deeply despised. It should not be about the causal stories of the potato field that became a funeral home and the room beside the kitchen that turned into a pub.
The Elisabeth Kübler-Ross stages of denial and anger have been resentfully replaced by the ingrained acknowledgment that there is some reason, yet not understood or defined, and in all likelihood will never be.
This raw end to a life that has only begun to explore possibility, stolen without any pretence of rhyme or reason.
My mother talks about how vast the sky is and how old the oak trees are and how they have seen it all. In her own beautiful way she does this to explain, ever so gently, that we are given life but that ultimately we have no control when it is taken.
As an undertaking family we had to learn that life goes on despite death choosing to take a dearly loved one without your permission.
I hated being taught that. I still do.