Turning up for funerals of strangers

A funeral every second month, really? However, this week I was at a funeral, again


Sometimes I feel I need to stand on a mountain and shout apologies to the world, to the people I have laughed at and thought foolish, because time often proves me wrong. Sometimes (whisper it) I am the one who is foolish and laughable.

But before self-flagellation commences in earnest, let me backtrack. It was 1998, and Anna from work was going to a funeral, again. Her aunt had died, again. Or maybe it was Beauty, Precious, Moses; maybe it was 1989, 1993, 2001.  Maybe it was an uncle.

“How many aunts does she even have?” we chuckled at the office. “They” were always going to funerals, taking time off, any excuse. They all had funeral plans paid each month before anything else, and marquees were pitched on the streets of Soweto for every sending off.

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It seemed excessive, the business of dying; it seemed insane. In the community in which I was raised, you only went to a funeral if you were close to the deceased – an immediate family member or intimate friend. Anything else was intruding on another’s grief; it was taking advantage at work.

A funeral every second month, really? However, this week I was at a funeral, again. The deceased was an old woman I never met in my life, yet still I joined the 500-odd mourners in a Catholic church on a rainy day and shed a tear for this stranger. Why? Because she was the mother of a friend by proxy, a childhood friend of Himself.

That’s how we do things in Ireland: we turn up for funerals of relatives of friends. We turn up for funerals of strangers. At the wake the previous night, neighbours had queued down the street. After the burial, the entire congregation was invited to a gathering at a hotel.

This was my second funeral this year. We go to mark a life lived and lost, yes, but also to support those left behind – in this case the five children and 12 grandchildren grieving their matriarch. We show up for them, and we know that one day they will show up for us.

 It’s a million miles from my white Anglican upbringing. It’s a million times better as well. So Anna, Beauty, Precious, Moses… I’m sorry, I got it wrong. Next time there’s a funeral, I’m coming too.

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