Thursday, August 25, 2011

Bás in Éirinn: An Irish Perspective on Death

UH Honors Student enjoys Irish graveyard
To answer one of Dr. Armstrong's questions: Most of my dead are in Ireland.  In relation to this topic at least, I feel fortunate to have grown up in a country with some remaining traces of a pre-modern culture.  (Homer, for example, would have felt at home with the oral storytellers of the Atlantic coast known as seanachaí; they finally faded out around about the time television faded in.)

In general, I think the Irish are—or were—a little more comfortable with death than Americans.  The modern American—at its most manicured Hollywood extreme—attitude to death and burial was satirized by British novelist Evelyn Waugh as far back as 1948, in his little bombshell of a book The Loved One.  In that scalding short novel, you can get buried in the opulent Whispering Glades, your pet can rest in peace in the well-appointed Happier Hunting Ground, and no mortician will ever refer to you as dead.

On the other side of the Atlantic, death was part of the conversation.  While still a child, I heard that an excellent and only half-joking way of proposing marriage was to ask, "How would you like to be buried with my people?"  Just a few years ago I had a conversation with an older Irish educator who told me that not only did he have his plot bought (beside his late parents) but that he'd also had headstone put up already (an Ani-like level of preparation).  "Yes," he enthused, "it's the only spot in the cemetery with a tree."  "That's nice," I said, "it'll provide you with a bit of shade."  Without missing a beat, he replied, "I might need it where I'm going."

Passage Graves at Newgrange, Ireland
For centuries, even millennia (the passage grave site in Newgrange, County Meath is older than the pyramids) the Irish have done funerals well; In Finnegans Wake, James Joyce came up with the appropriate pun "funferall."  And much of the fun at funerals was indeed to be had at the "wake," the traditional vigil which was also a celebration of the dead person's life and spirit.  In fact, I've been to wakes myself, and I don't think that mortuary tradition will ever die out.

However, one kind of wake has become defunct: the "American" wake: the whiskey-soaked vigil that would be held the night before a young person took the immigrant ship to the New World; the chances were that their family would never see them again; the departing person was effectively becoming one of the "dearly departed."  This dead-in-life state, this liminal condition has, again, an Egyptian resonance to it.  The New World, the Underworld--these were big adventures, with big rewards, and considerable risks.

Years ago, the sine qua non for many Irish immigrants in America was the dream they called (and only the Gaelic phrase has the necessary gravitas) "bás in Éirinn"—death in Ireland.  For most of them it remained just that, a distant dream.  Some of them lived long enough to see modern air travel make a return to the "auld sod" a practical reality; not just the ba but the body itself could take flight.  It must have been in the early 1980s that my sister, who was a flight attendant with Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, told me about a passenger she had on a transatlantic run.  This very old man had just spent a couple of weeks back in Ireland for the first time since leaving as a very young man.  No sooner had the plane taken off from Shannon and left the green fields behind than he had a fatal heart attack.  The plane had to return to Ireland so that he could be officially pronounced dead, and there he remained, to be buried.

Sometimes the spirit wants to go forth, and sometimes it wants to return.
—Robert Cremins
Mass Card Featuring Name in Gaelic Script
Traditional Funeral Mass Card

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