Back then, dy­ing was ex­pen­sive business

Irish Examiner - Farming - - COVER STORY - Cor­ma­c­sea­mus101@gmail.com

It might sur­prise many of you that from the age of about 14, I was reg­u­larly at­tend­ing an av­er­age of three fu­ner­als weekly, rep­re­sent­ing my fa­ther.

And, even though all of those fu­ner­als were only a short bi­cy­cle ride away from home, the cu­mu­la­tive cost of at­tend­ing them cost my dear fa­ther a small for­tune on an an­nual ba­sis.

The cost of dy­ing, re­ally, was nearly as sig­nif­i­cant as the cost of liv­ing, back then. That is another maybe surprising pure truth.

My fa­ther, you see, owned the lo­cal coun­try shop.

He was of­ten so busy be­hind the counter that my­self, the old­est son, was fre­quently drafted in to rep­re­sent him at fu­ner­als touch­ing the fam­i­lies of his cus­tomers. Al­ways, be­fore I de­parted for the chapel a cou­ple of miles away, he would dip into the till and hand me five shillings for the of­fer­ings, which were then a crucial el­e­ment of Catholic fu­ner­als, in many parishes.

The shillings were not for me. They were for the par­ish priest or the cu­rate con­duct­ing the fu­neral ser­vice. We grew up with that tra­di­tion which, I think, lasted un­til Vat­i­can II or there­abouts.

My raft of fu­ner­als oc­curred in the late 1950s. I re­mem­ber them well, and I hated them with a pas­sion, be­cause you had to wear your Sun­day best on a week­day, and the fu­neral ser­vice, in­clud­ing the painfully slow of­fer­ings sec­tion, and the homily of praise for the de­ceased, seemed to last for­ever, when you were 14, and wear­ing a tight tie around your neck.

The way it worked was that the cel­e­brant stood inside the al­tar rails flanked by al­tar boys at the end of the Mass and the con­gre­ga­tion shuf­fled up the aisle, with their of­fer­ings for the ta­ble be­fore him. Each name and the amount of­fered was called out loudly. Back then, im­me­di­ate fam­ily mem­bers paid any­thing be­tween one and five pounds, and from there, the amounts ranged down­wards to five shillings, with the low­est con­tri­bu­tions never be­ing less than two shillings. The ma­jor­ity of neigh­bours and friends, like my fa­ther, paid five shillings.

At the end of the cer­e­mony, the priest would an­nounce that the to­tal of­fer­ings had amounted to a sum which on av­er­age ranged be­tween £30, and £50-£60, at a time when even one pound was a sig­nif­i­cant sum.

The of­fer­ings went di­rectly to the clergy of the par­ish. Such was the tra­di­tion. I re­mem­ber hear­ing once that a witty priest in the next par­ish re­marked that he was hav­ing a bad year. He ap­par­ently nod­ded to­wards the grave­yard around his chapel, and said, “There has been no sod turned there since last Jan­uary!” Ac­cord­ingly, no of­fer­ings ei­ther. It was the way things were. And, in­evitably in this world, there was a poignantly sad un­der­side to the tra­di­tion. You see, the sit­u­a­tion was, that if I died this Thurs­day, and the of­fer­ings paid at my fu­neral amounted to £84, then a sta­tus judge­ment was made in the par­ish.

A dif­fer­ent sta­tus judge­ment was made if I died the fol­low­ing Wed­nes­day, and my of­fer­ings amounted to only £48. We all know that kind of thing hap­pens, and it was espe­cially strong in our coun­try parishes in the 1950s. At that time, be­lieve it or not, many peo­ple counted the num­ber of cars fol­low­ing the hearses to the graveyards and, again, if there were less cars be­hind your hearse than be­hind mine on our last jour­neys, then cer­tain judge­ments were si­lently but sub­tly made. One espe­cially heart­break­ing facet of the tra­di­tion of of­fer­ings bore heav­ily on parish­ioners who were maybe ag­ing bach­e­lors in the com­mu­nity, of­ten farm­ers.

As they came closer to the end of their jour­ney through life, they fre­quently be­gan at­tend­ing even more fu­ner­als than my fa­ther dis­patched me to.

They knew that ev­ery five shillings they laid on the ta­ble be­fore the al­tar would be re­paid on the day of their fu­neral, and would boost the to­tal of their of­fer­ings, into what would be re­garded as a “re­spectable” sum by the silent parochial judges who in­ter­ested them­selves in that area. A sad truth there. The ter­mi­na­tion of that tra­di­tion was to be wel­comed. I may be wrong, but I be­lieve it was not just an Ul­ster tra­di­tion ei­ther, but was fairly wide­spread na­tion­ally.

I also be­lieve that it lasted for many years after I stopped at­tend­ing fu­ner­als for my fa­ther, maybe right up un­til Vat­i­can II, and a new or­der of things.

Thank heav­ens it is now just a folk mem­ory.

And, of course, re­mem­ber­ing that witty par­ish priest com­plain­ing that no lu­cra­tive sods had been turned over in his grave­yard for months, I have my tongue firmly lodged in my left cheek, when mak­ing no con­nec­tion at all be­tween the end­ing of of­fer­ings, and the cur­rent sharp drop in the num­ber of our priests.

From the age of about 14, Cor­mac of­ten rep­re­sented his fa­ther at fu­ner­als. Back then, each mourner was ex­pected to pay a fu­neral of­fer­ing, never less than two shillings, and up to £5.

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