Paddy (or Pat) as I shall call him hereafter is in his late 50s, a professional businessman with a grown up family. He is steeped in the culture of his country, proud of his heritage, in love with the music, language and religion of his people. Yet, for all the influence of the Irish Republican upbringing that he knew, he is a remarkable open and tolerant man. An hour spent in his company is an hour of powerful CRAIC (pronounced CRACK, and means a real good time).
The main cultural difference between Pat and myself is that he is a Roman Catholic and I am a Protestant. In other Christian cultures this would not perhaps even be considered a cultural difference, except for maybe for occasions when conflict of doctrine and ethics gave rise to public debate through the press. However, in Northern Ireland, the difference is so great that it can mean the difference between life and death, murder and mayhem, social conflict and at worst civil war. Northern Irish society, all of its major social and cultural functions are polarised along the lines of Protestant and Catholic allegiance and the politics that attaches (generally) to each.
It is only in the practice of religion though, that Pat and I differ. Unusual for a Northern Irish Protestant, I am an Irish Nationalist by political allegiance. This means that my aspirations, hopes, dreams and desires for this country would be the same as those of Pat. We share the same love of music, appreciation of the Irish language, passion for the history of Ireland and the stories of Her kings, warriors, poets and heroes. In the North, it is considered anathema for a Protestant to hold such cultural allegiance, and the expectation is that the Protestant would owe allegiance to Britain and the cultural baggage that belongs to empire. (small "e" for the empire is all but gone).
Protestant & Catholic. Utterly divided supposedly on the basis of religion. Yet, when the matter is looked into, there are so few major differences on the religious side, that one has to conclude it is not religion that separates the people of this Island, but it is rather "cultural identity" that separates our people.
The reason I have so much in common with Pat, is owing to the fact that I am the son of a mixed marriage both in terms of politics, religion and culture for two generations back.
So Pat and I had a good basis for the interview and enjoyed our time together over a "Ploughman's Lunch" in a local hotel.
I asked Pat to describe to me what rituals and traditions were in his culture to commemorate death?
He told me of the tradition of the Irish catholic wake. The wake is the three day period that the body waits in preparation for internment in the graveyard. It is common to both traditions in Ireland, but there are differences. The main one perhaps surrounds the tradition of playing pranks with the dead body. It was not uncommon until recent times for people to remove the corpse from the bed and for someone to take its place. When people would come to pay their last respects and to touch the body for the last time, they were likely to be greeted by the corpse who would ask them "how are you today". The situation would cause a mixture of horror and hilarity. Though Pat felt that the tradition was dying out, he was sure that the reason for the pranks and jokes was to somehow lessen the impact of loss and to provide a coping mechanism for the sadness of death.
The wake in Catholic culture appears to be (or have been) a much more lively affair than Protestant wakes. For the three days of the wake, when people would gather at the house to say their farewells to the dead, there would be a constant supply of food and drink. The drink usually being alcoholic (Guinness and whisky). Not only did this add to the almost party atmosphere, but it also provided a means of living to certain wake-goers. Pat told of one man in the community who never had to buy provisions of food and drink for his home. Each morning he would read the obituary notices in the newspaper, find the nearest place where someone had died, and then go along to pay his respects. He would leave well fed and watered ready for the next day.
The Wake in the family home was, and still is, of major importance to the Catholic family. Going to a Funeral Parlour is out of the question. It is important that the deceased person is able to spend his/her last days around the family they had loved and known. It is also important that the remaining family are able to have their loved-one with them until the moment they absolutely must let go. Part of this had to do with the concept of the dead remaining among the living in a warm and cherished way. I sensed from Pat that there was no such thing as "they are gone now". Memory plays a big part in the Catholic tradition of the dead, and in the wake, it was important that this memory was strengthened and enhanced in an atmosphere where the symbolism of Catholic faith could bring comfort. A tradition for Irish Catholics (and one which Irish Protestants frown upon with immense disdain - let me say that I do not share this disdain) is the practice of producing memory cards of the dead person. This is an attractive card in the form of a small greetings card. On the outside is a religious symbol related to death and resurrection. On the inside is a photograph of the person who has died, and usually a poem or expression of fondness for the one who has been lost. I was introduced to this custom last year by one of my Catholic clients. His father who had been a medical doctor had died and my client wished to share with me the meaning of the loss he had experienced, but also the sense of closeness that remained between him and his deceased father. It was a moving experience that impressed upon me for many days. I came to experience first hand, and in a meaningful way, a tradition I had been brought up to believe was intrinsically abominable.
In Loving Memory To ( I am withholding the name).
Fold him O Jesus in thine arms,
And let him hencforth be,
A messenger of love between
Our human hearts and Thee.
Make me an instrument of Thy peace (by St Francis of Assisi)
On the outside back cover:
Death is nothing at all - I have only slipped away into the next room. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way that you always used. laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effort. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is absolutely unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of your mind because I am out of your sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval somewhere very near just around the corner. All is well. Nothing is pat; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before - only better, infinitely happier and for ever - we will all be one together in Christ.
This, plus the cards that Pat showed me, dispelled forever whatever I had been brought up to believe about such cards. They were infused with faith, Christian hope, warm attachments and most of all what I am now calling "Living Memory" purposefully created and maintained as a link to those gone on before. I came to the unmistakable realisation that for a Catholic, a loved one is never dead, while there are those who knew them still living on.
This would highlight why Pat felt that the tradition of the funeral home and that of leaving the body in the church for the three days, was in some way, an act of abandonment. I was impressed by this, for even though Irish Protestants have a similar Wake tradition, there is not this concept of the living among the dead and the dead among the living, and the strengthening of the bonds even through the permanent loss which death represents. A further tradition that surrounded the Wake was that of shrouding all pictures and stopping the clock until after the funeral. Pat was not sure of the traditional understanding of this act, but felt that it had to do with symbols of death and resurrection.
A ritual of the Catholic church that I discovered in this interview with Pat gave me an insight to the very different view of grieving that we as Protestants do not have. He spoke of the need to drop out of all social functions until the "Months Mind" was over. One month after the death, the persons name would be read in the mass, reminding the loved one, that being out of sight did not mean being out of mind. Pat spoke of the weekly mention that would be made of names of the departed during the weekly Mass. He told of the annual "Cemetery Day" in which the whole local congregation would gather in the cemetery and clean the place up. It was a day of social togetherness and solidarity, of recalling names and retelling of deeds. The day was started and finished with prayer. "It's almost as if the living are among the dead, and the dead are among the living" said Pat. I know that culturally in Northern Ireland, Protestants do not have anything that equates to this range of memorisation's of the dead. In fact, I know it is frowned upon by the Protestant culture. Though we too cherish the memory of the dead. Nevertheless, I found something rich and assuring in these very overt traditions. When I questioned Pat about the usefulness of group support for grieving, he was clear that the support that was gained from belonging to this fellowship of faith, both of the living and the dead, there was immense support and affirmation of belief. It did not take pain away, but it gave meaning and comfort. Above all, I sensed very clearly that what this community of faith gave, was a positive sense of going on, not alone, but in the company of all the saints, living and dead.
The most shocking tradition for Pat was that of cremation. Almost unheard of among Catholics in Ireland. He was troubled by the coldness of cremation as a ritual, with its lack of the catholic symbols of Candles, Crucifixes and Rituals. These things spoke to him of permanence, both of ritual and of person, and brought a sort of everlastingness to the comfort experienced. Cremation, in contrast, spoke of coldness and total finality. There was nowhere to locate the body. No place to stand and pray or speak with the departed. The laying to rest in a settled place; the being able to visit, to talk, to pray with the person deceased was immensely important to the lifelong process of grieving. The way he put it was, "at least I can go back to my father's grave and know that he is there."
I asked Pat what beliefs were a comfort in the face of death?
A key belief was that of knowing that the souls of those who had departed could be prepared for Heaven. The "Place of The Holy Souls" was an important belief for Catholics. Comfort was derived from knowing that Hell was not the place to which the soul departed upon death. There was this "Cleansing Station" as Pat called it, where the could could move from one stage of perfection to another, and finally attain entry to heave. What was most comforting about this belief, was that it gave the remaining family and friends the opportunity to participate in this process of cleansing and moving by having masses said regularly for the departed. Pat admitted to sometimes feeling that this was perhaps a man-made comfort device to lessen the impact of permanent separation from a loved-one. Nonetheless, he felt on balance that he was more inclined to lie life by the view of the older folk who talked about the need to be absolutely surrendered to God. Death was not an enemy, but part of the will of God; if we submit to it we can find peace in knowing that the death of a loved-one was in fact part of LIFE itself. This gave a sense of surety of purpose and hopeful anticipation. For Pat, Faith was an absolute key in the grieving process, and he felt that it gave him the assurance that after death, there is in fact something more. Being part of that something more by participating in prayers and Mass was a strengthening of that faith.
This concept of Masses for the dead is one of the major anathema of Ulster (Northern Irish) Protestant religion. It is enough to ensure that Ulster Protestants maintain a stance akin to that of the early reformers such as Luther which ensures a mentality of fear and intolerance. This in turn is used to fuel the fire of cultural hatred and suspicion which goes something like this "If we accept the other side's right to believe like this and we embrace a spirit of tolerance and compromise, we will be on the ruinous road to Rome and Popish rule. We must fight for our freedom from a Popish plot to take over our land and impose a Whorish faith upon our people". Such 16th century thinking is at the heart of Northern Ireland's political life. Main Protestant politicians embrace such anachronistic thinking, and so the conflict continues. For me, I found a richness in Pat's faith that ensured a living exercise of that faith on daily and weekly basis. This was in stark contrast to my own religious practice for example - When my father-in-law died, his body was left outside in the funeral car while the funeral service went on in the church. The minister began the service by saying, "Mr Hughes is dead and gone, we are done with his life now, therefore we do not bring the body into the Church, but rather we concentrate on the living." I was shocked! Though I do not for myself accept the concept of the "Place of the Holy Souls", nor therefore the need for Masses to bestow graces on the departed soul, I nonetheless can't see why that should divide me from my Catholic friends, or deny them the right to believe as they will. I was enriched by Pat's faith and was able to see how it supported him through the many losses he has known. My father and grandmother were devout Catholics, and though I never knew them, I feel that some of my tolerance derives from my personal history and hopes for their hereafter.
I asked about beliefs that increased the pain of loss?
For Pat, the belief that brought the ultimate fear, pain and distress, was the belief of a place called hell. "There is always the niggling fear that perhaps the deceased person had committed a mortal sin that others did not know about". Therefore, "What if we never see them again." This is such a powerful belief for Pat and his wife, that when their son who had abandoned the Catholic faith admitted to not having had his children baptised, they waited until they had the children alone in the home one day, took them upstairs and baptised them in the bathtub. Though Pat said nothing about confession with regard to this possibility of committing a mortal sin, I did however have cause to reflect how such a process would be comforting and beneficial to the bereaved person. Confession gives the opportunity to repent and to have the sin dealt with. I sensed from what Pat said that there was always this hope that the person had made peace with God before death.
I asked - Is there anything about Heaven that brings comfort?
Belief in a Heaven was an important part of Pat's faith. He did however confess to sometimes feeling that this was nothing more than a belief for comforts sake, and that there may be nothing there at all. At his best, Pat believed that it was not just that there was a heaven that brought comfort, but that there as an ongoingness for the loved-one who had departed was of great importance. A asked Pat if that belief made it easier to bear loss. He responded with an assurance of faith that confessed the reality of a higher existence than this world offers. He found this assurance strengthened in the Requiem Mass for the dead which reminded him of the journey of the soul to better places than heretofore known. Mass is frowned upon in the Protestant culture of Northern Ireland. I wonder why is is that we are so ready to deny the articles of faith and mechanisms of comfort to our fellow travellers along the eternal road??
I asked Pat to define healthy and unhealthy grief?
His answer was predictable and except for the personal feeling that he had that "It is much better to break down, than to bottle everything up, " he admitted that in Irish society, men aren't allowed to show the emotions that accompany bereavement.
The concept of blame and anger were of great significance to Pat. Healthy grieving sought to work through blame and anger and to find a faith response. That is, the "part of God's plan" submission to the will of God indicated above. His own sister had died as a result of the conflict in Northern Ireland. She had been on her way home when she came across a riot. British army troops opened up with C.S. Gas rounds. She was caught in the riot and being asthmatic, the gas had disastrous affects upon her. The doctor sent her home to rest, saying that she would come to no harm. A neighbour saw her lying on the sofa and told Pat's mother to get her to a hospital. Unfortunately, she died 2 days later. Pat felt that the most productive way through this grief had been to avoid blaming the doctor and expressing anger towards him. I felt however, that all these years on he still felt the pain of losing his young sister. One thing I felt was, that in no way for Pat was there a sense of grieving as being a way of "getting on with it". The love and the pain, the loss and the person were all an integral part of the present. In the words of C.S. Lewis "The pain then is part of the happiness now." I sensed that for Pat grieving was a journey of faith, and on that journey the rocks of loss, pain and sorrow remained, but so also did the nearness of the person and the longing for their presence to be "still there". I sensed Pat's WHY? But I also sensed his courage and conviction that said, "She is never truly gone".
I questioned a Pat about the way people use trite phrases at times of grief such as "It's better for them, sure if they had stayed on, wouldn't they only have suffered even more", or, "Sure isn't it a mercy for them, Aren't they much better off now." Pat felt that these stock answers were a useful devise for people, but that they only increased the pain of loss. He did feel though that as he grew older, these answers gave him a way of facing the inevitability of his own end.
Pat's experiences of grief, especially as they are allied to faith have made him deeply aware of his own end. He has made his family ware of the music that he would like to be played at his funeral - Schubert's Serenade. The Mass for Pat is a major celebration of life. To know beforehand how his going will be, is for him a comforting thought that makes tolerable the awareness that there has to be a departing. It was at this point that Pat and I were able to share some of the things we shared with regard to our Irishness. Our love of the same history, song, music and heroes. I told him that when it came time for my departing I would wish them to play the song "I Can Almost See Ireland From Here" by Frank Patterson. It turned out that Pat knew Frank. I am not likely to get my way though. You see, I am a Protestant by faith and an Irishman by culture. There is not a church in the country that will allow me to have that song played at my funeral. As a Christian, I affirm the faith, and know the value and witness that the singing of Psalm 23 would be. I would like though, that just as a last little window on the person that I was (or am) if I see through Pat's cultural eyes, that I could say that the next most important thing to my faith is my Irishness. For a Protestant, this would not be allowed. We are supposed to be British. Pat does not have this conflict between faith and culture. For the Irish Catholic, faith and culture are one item.
Did I learn anything from this exchange of faith and therefore, because we are in Northern Ireland, culture? I did. learnt that when it comes to death, we each share the same experience of loss. I learnt most of all, that those things we had been taught in the Catholic faith were anathema and were to be feared, were rather traditions resting on faith. They are rich, meaningful and comforting and cannot in anyway threaten the faith that we as Protestants possess. I learnt also, that in sharing with someone of another culture, I in no way lost or compromised any of my own culture. Instead, I was enriched by the things we shared and by the commonality of pain and hope we each shared when faced with grief. Of course, I had a head start. I already see the world through Irish cultural eyes, and so was devoid of some of the prejudices I am supposed to embrace. But, that has to stay a secret. You can get killed in this country for embracing the culture of the other side and that brings us full circle to Grief In A Family Context - Culture!!