A month for remembrance and connecting with the dead
IT is November, the month of remembering. In the calendar of historic events the month is dedicated to remembering the fallen in war, particularly the dead of the First World War.
The guns fell silent on the Western Front at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.
For those in the Roman Catholic tradition, the month is dedicated to praying for the dead and is known traditionally as the month of the Holy Souls.
It is a period when some of the most lapsed of Catholics will mark the time and stay off the drink or engage in some such act of abstinence, ‘because of the month that is in it’.
And it is good to remember, to connect with the dead, with what made us, what gives that particular twist to our DNA.
For me, this November there is a fresh grave to visit marking the place where my father returned to the earth.
My remembering started early when a book arrived in the post last week. A friend whose mother passed away in the last year sent it. In a short post-it note attached to the cover he wrote: “When I read this book I knew why God stopped me sending a Mass card.”
My Father’s Wake – How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die is a memoir by journalist and film-maker, Kevin Toolis. One of seven children, his parents came from Achill Island and emigrated to Edinburgh. As a child he spent every summer in Achill and his description of the journey “home” and the events that made up his time there, along with the sadness of the farewell, will resonate with many.
His book is a homage to the Irish wake, to its centrality in Irish life, where the reality of death and dying are not shunned or avoided and are neither allowed to brood over everything.
Rather, death is accepted as part of the continuum of being human.
He castigates what he calls the ‘Western Death Machine’ that seeks to sanitise the reality of death and prevent it from impinging on us.
He asks: “How can it be possible to never talk out loud about death in a world where everyone dies?”
And even more starkly he says: “We don’t want to see the sick, smell the decay of wizened flesh, feel the coldness of the corpse or hear the cry of keening women. We don’t want to intrude on the dying because we don’t want to look at the mirror of our own death.”
As a very young man Toolis lost his brother to leukaemia, and his mother died suddenly in her 60s. In an attempt to understand these events, his life became a search for death and its reality.
As a journalist he took himself to the trouble-spots of the world, to the North at the height of the Troubles, to Gaza, Lebanon, the famines of Africa and the heart of the AIDS epidemic in Malawi. He even took a job at a city mortuary.
The book centres on his father, Sonny, who returns from Edinburgh to Dookinella in Achill after his wife dies. He spends the rest of his days in his home-place.
After many a death-seeking odyssey, Toolis eventually comes to embrace the reality of death and dying through the death, wake and funeral of his father.
Along with his family and the neighbours he accompanies Sonny through “his