Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, I was surrounded by multi-generational Irish families whose capacity for storytelling and singing left a deep impression on me. When, in the last few years, my parents died a year apart, the celebrations of their lives were marked by the presence of lots of Irish friends. In fact, their heartfelt Irish mourning was a model for others. After the funeral for my father, I received texts from friends asking me for copies of some of the toasts that were given. People were hungry for language that, at a moment of great loss, would help them to remember and mourn, to laugh and cry. The Irish, like many other immigrant communities, know how to respond to death — something we seem to be losing in our wider culture.
After my father's funeral Mass, we gathered for food, drinks, music, toasts, and storytelling — the last, an artful mix of fiction and nonfiction. Over an afternoon, memories came flooding back. Emotions welled up. Conversations mixed sorrow with laughter, tears with gratitude. There's something in us that needs to remember, to celebrate and mourn — not just in isolation, but with a community of friends.
Yet we seem to be increasingly detached from shared rituals in the face of death. In his magisterial book, The Hour of Our Death, Philippe Ariès traces the history of attitudes toward death from antiquity in which death and the dead were pervasive presences in daily, communal life, to our current world in which death has become privatized and nearly invisible.
In the Western world, as a recent BBC piece about the decline in funerals shows, there is a tendency to bypass public ceremonies entirely. There are a number of reasons for this. There is the increasing cost of a funeral, exacerbated by inflation. There is the burden of making arrangements and, for many, the awkwardness of having to encounter a number of strangers who might have known the deceased but whom other family members don't know at all.
At many of these gatherings, no one knows what to say. In a bracing personal essay on a memorial she attended, Karen Wilson Baptist writes: "I sensed no comfort in this contemporary celebration of death. There was no casket, no urn, no body in the room. Nobody led us into ritual commemoration; rather there was an open microphone at the front of the room. Speak at will. Share a story. But we did not share stories nor did we sing laments together: there was no grave to attend to, no ashes to scatter."
The increasing isolation of family members from one another means that more of us die alone and more of us are laid to rest with little or no notice. As a nurse quoted in the BBC piece noted, that leaves us with "unresolved grief."
My parents' families whose ancestors came from England and Scotland to the U.S. in the 19th century long ago lost whatever ethnic connections they may once have had. But we were fortunate to be surrounded by Irish in the communities in which we lived. When those friendships were originally formed, we had no idea that one of the reasons for our good fortune would be their presence at funerals.
A version of one of those funeral toasts, originally composed in honor of my father, Bill Hibbs, won last years' inaugural Guinness Saint Patrick's Day toast contest. I'd like to end by quoting that toast, from my Irish friend, Tom Ponton:
When you're old and gray and doze by the fire
And you have one last glass before you retire
It's not about wealth but the seeds that you've sown
To the people you've loved and the friends that you've known.
So let's raise a glass to our family and friends
and to those who oppose us, well, let's make amends
For there's no use in cryin', it's not a long stay
I'm not one for me lyin' — Happy St. Patrick's Day!