A Great Judge of Coffins
My mother used to tell a story about the time she started going out with my father. They were beginning to get close to one another and had just started going to dances and different social events near and far. One day a letter arrived from the United States with the news that an aunt of hers had died in Brooklyn. Almost immediately, as soon as the letter bringing the bad news arrived, my Grandfather promptly silenced the wireless and prohibited my mother from going out for the following month, which was to be the expected period of mourning. After all what would the neighbours say about the young lady going to dances and her aunt just dead beyond in America.
Needless to say, my mother was not too happy with the restrictions. She and my father were beginning to get serious with one another and were spending more and more time together. She was more than a little afraid that during this period of enforced separation himself might move on to pastures new. Thankfully for my siblings and me, he weathered the drought and they managed to make a life together. The real source of my mother’s annoyance was that her predicament was caused by an aunt whom she had never really known. She had left for the U.S. long before my mother was born and even my Grandfather was just a young boy when the said aunt had left on the emigrant ship.
I sometimes think that it was this incident that colored and shaped my mother’s somewhat peculiar and unusual attitude to death. She had something of a casual approach to the subject. She spoke about it easily and in a very matter of fact way. She would often judge photographs of herself by their suitability for use on a mortuary card. She regularly made plans for her own death and arrangements for her funeral. At one time she suggested that she might have herself stuffed and mounted and left in the corner of the sitting room where she could keep an eye on us. I agreed wholeheartedly, on the grounds that we hardly ever used the sitting room anyway. My response seemed to make her think better of that option.
I kind of think she enjoyed going to funerals. She was a great judge of coffins. She would regularly comment on the quality of the wood. There was one type of coffin for which she had a particular disdain, which she was convinced was made of plastic. In my professional life I have known many undertakers, and all have assured me that there is no such thing as a plastic coffin. Her own preference was for an oak coffin with brass mounts. When the day finally came, we her children, duly complied with her request lest she make good on her threat to come back and haunt us if we settled for anything less. Almost twelve years on from her funeral, one of my brothers still complains of back pain, originally sustained from shouldering the oak coffin down the Ennis Road and up Main Street to the parish church.
I always think fondly of her at this time of year. The two weeks leading up to the 1st of November were always accompanied by a very special ritual. The November list was never far from her hand. It was in her cardigan pocket, or it was on the table with a pencil beside it. My father’s name went on the top of the list, then the child that died, then my grandparents. Next came other family members, aunts and uncles and cousins. Then she would take down the prayer book with the broken spine because it was stuffed with the mortuary cards of neighbors, these then went on the list. From time to time she would stop short as a name came into her head and she’d reach for the list and add another name to it.
Finally, just before the 1st of November, the list was put in an envelope with an offering for the priest and sealed. It was one of those religious rituals on the part of my mother that was accompanied by great thought and reflection. I sometimes think her casual approach to the subject of death was born out of her conviction that, as the funeral liturgy says, for God’s faithful people life is changed, not ended. She had a strong sense that those whose names she included on her November list were not far from us and that their presence in our minds and our hearts meant that they still lived. Those who die live in God, and God is always near
The teaching of the Catholic Church on the holy souls is, in many ways, one of the most consoling teachings of our church. It says that by our remembrance, by our prayers and by our acts of love we still help them on their journey back to God. As the funeral liturgy reminds us so poignantly; We believe that all the ties of friendship and affection that knit us together as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death. It is fitting that those who helped us in this life are now helped by us as their life comes to completion.
Fr. Brendan Quinlivan, based in Tulla is Vicar Forane for the Ceantar na Lochanna Pastoral Area in East Clare