In my fa­ther’s wake

We’ve lost our way with death, says Kevin Too­lis – but the Ir­ish wake, where the liv­ing, the be­reaved and the dead re­main bound to­gether, shows us the way things could be done

The Guardian - Family - - Front Page -

In the nar­row room the old man lay close to death. Two days be­fore, he had ceased to speak, lapsed into un­con­scious­ness, and the fi­nal vigil had be­gun. The rav­ages of can­cer had eaten into the flesh leav­ing only a skele­tal husk. The heart beat on and the lungs drew breath but it was im­pos­si­ble to tell if he re­mained aware.

In the bare white­washed room, no big­ger than a prison cell, 10 watch­ers – the mná caointe – the wail­ing women, were call­ing out, keen­ing, shar­ing the last moments of the life, and the death, of this man. My fa­ther. Sonny.

“Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us now, and at the hour of our death.”

In the tight, en­closed space, the sound of this cho­rus of voices boomed off the walls, the ceil­ing, louder and louder, re­ver­ber­at­ing, verse after verse, on and on, cradling Sonny into death.

This death so open, so dif­fer­ent from the de­nial of the An­glo-Saxon world would, too, be Sonny’s last parental les­son.

How to die.

If you have never been to an Ir­ish wake, or only seen the movie ver­sion, you prob­a­bly think a wake is just an­other Ir­ish piss up, a few pints around the corpse and an open cof­fin. But you would be wrong.

In the An­glo-Saxon world, death is a whis­per. In­stinc­tively we feel we should dim the lights, lower our voices and draw the screens. We want to give the dead, dy­ing and the griev­ing room. We say we do so be­cause we don’t want to in­trude. And that is true but not for th­ese rea­sons.

We don’t want to in­trude be­cause we don’t want to look at the mir­ror of our own death. We

have lost our way with death.

On the Ir­ish is­land where my fam­ily have lived in the same village for the last 200 years, and in much of the rest of Ire­land, death still speaks with a louder voice. Along with the weather re­ports of in­com­ing At­lantic storms, the lo­cal Mayo coun­try and west­ern ra­dio sta­tion runs a thrice daily deaths an­nounce­ment enu­mer­at­ing the deaths and the fu­neral ar­range­ments of the 10 or so daily freshly de­parted. There is even a phone line, 95c a minute, just so you can check up on those corpses you might have missed.

There should be noth­ing strange about this. In the ab­sence of war and catas­tro­phe, hu­mans across the planet die at an an­nual rate of 1%; 200,000 dead peo­ple a day, 73m dead peo­ple a year. An even spread. It’s hap­pen­ing all around you even as you read this ar­ti­cle; the block op­po­site, the neigh­bour­ing street and your lo­cal hos­pi­tal.

If the lo­cal ra­dio in Lon­don or New York did the same as that Mayo sta­tion, the an­nouncer would have to read out the names of 230 dead strangers, three times a day, just to keep up.

Of course, if you live in a city such as Lon­don, where 85,000 peo­ple die each year, you would never know of th­ese things. Such a very pub­lic nam­ing of the dead, an an­nun­ci­a­tion of our uni­ver­sal mor­tal­ity, would be an act of rev­e­la­tion in the An­glo-Saxon world. And likely deemed an out­rage against “pub­lic de­cency” – which would al­most cer­tainly lead to ad­ver­tis­ing boy­cotts and protests.

More shock­ing still then would be the dis­cov­ery of an­other coun­try where the dy­ing, like Sonny, the liv­ing, the be­reaved and the dead still openly share the world and re­main bound to­gether in the Ir­ish wake.

And death, in its very or­di­nar­i­ness, is no stranger.

My fa­ther, Sonny Too­lis, was too a very or­di­nary man. He was never rich or pow­er­ful or im­por­tant. He never held pub­lic of­fice and his name never ap­peared in the news­pa­pers. The world never paid him much at­ten­tion and Sonny also knew the world never would. He was born poor in a village on an is­land, de­void of elec­tric­ity, mains wa­ter and tarred roads, in much the same way the poor have been born in such places for most of hu­man his­tory.

Sonny never got the chance to get much of an ed­u­ca­tion and worked most of his life as a fore­man on build­ing sites earn­ing the money to pay for the uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion of his seven children.

Sonny was good with his hands though. Use­ful to have around if things went wrong with the elec­tric, the drains, or you needed the fur­ni­ture moved. He had his lim­i­ta­tions; he did not like strange pep­pery foods, he wasn’t very com­fort­able wear­ing suits, and he was ter­ri­ble at giv­ing speeches at wed­dings.

He did have a great singing voice, played the bag­pipes and the ac­cor­dion, and taught his children to sing by what he called the air – by lis­ten­ing along. In the 1960s, he bought a 35mm Ger­man cam­era, took pic­tures, and ran the prints off in his own dark­room. He even shot film on Su­per 8. But it was never more than a hobby. Like a lot of us, Sonny had some tal­ents he would never fully re­alise in life.

But Sonny re­ally did have one ad­van­tage over most of us. He knew how to die. And he knew how to do that be­cause his is­land moth­ers and fathers, and all the gen­er­a­tions be­fore, had shared their deaths in the Ir­ish wake and showed him how to die too. His dy­ing, his wake, his will­ing shar­ing of his own death, would too be his last parental les­son to his children and his com­mu­nity. A gift.

The wake is among the old­est rites of hu­man­ity first cited in the great Homeric war poem the Iliad and com­monly prac­tised across Europe un­til the last 200 years. The fi­nal verses of the Iliad, the dis­play of the Tro­jan prince Hec­tor’s corpse, the wail­ing women, the feast­ing and the fu­neral games, are de­voted to his wake. And such rit­u­als would be eas­ily recog­nis­able to any wake-goer on the is­land to­day.

For our an­ces­tors, a wake, with its weight of obli­ga­tions be­tween the liv­ing and the bod­ies of the dead, and the dead and liv­ing, was a path­way to re­store nat­u­ral or­der to the world, heal our mor­tal wound, and com­mu­nally over­come the death of any one in­di­vid­ual. An act, in our cur­rent, thin psy­cho­log­i­cal jar­gon, of clo­sure.

Through ur­ban­i­sa­tion, in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion and the med­i­cal­i­sa­tion of death, the wake died away in most of the west­ern world and death it­self came to be si­lenced by what might be called the West­ern Death Ma­chine. But out in the west, among the Celts, this an­cient form of death shar­ing lives on.

When he was 70, my fa­ther was di­ag­nosed with pan­cre­atic can­cer – still among the most fa­tal can­cers among west­ern men. Sonny never flinched. He did not want to die but when he knew he had no choice, he never wasted the time he had left. He wasn’t an­gry or em­bit­tered but some­thing wiser – he ac­cepted his death. He got on with his dy­ing the same way as he had got on liv­ing, day by day, press­ing for­ward, hus­band­ing his en­ergy.

Sonny’s time had come but nei­ther he nor his com­mu­nity de­nied his im­pend­ing death. Un­like the shun­ning of the An­glo-Saxon world, his house filled with vis­i­tors who came to see him be­cause he was dy­ing.

Dy­ing is an ex­haust­ing, self-cen­tring act. Sonny, al­ways a pow­er­ful phys­i­cally im­pos­ing man, rapidly shed pow­ers like a snake shed­ding skin. His world shrank to two rooms and Sonny knew he would never see the end of that fate­ful sum­mer.

Sonny’s fa­ther­hood was end­ing and my own be­gin­ning. Our last words to­gether on his deathbed were very or­di­nary, bland. “I’ll let you go, son,” he said as I left to re­turn to the city. When I re­turned, he had lapsed into a coma and could no longer speak.

But our part­ing was fit­ting. There was no more mys­tery to share. No rev­e­la­tion to be un­cov­ered. Our iden­ti­ties as fa­ther and son had al­ready been writ­ten out in the deeds of our life to­gether; Sonny chang­ing my nappy, not los­ing his tem­per in my teenage con­trari­ness, en­cour­ag­ing me in my ed­u­ca­tion and the sum­mers we shared on build­ing sites when I worked along­side him while still a student. And in all the count­less ways he showed me in his craft how to be a man and fa­ther my­self.

Sonny died just be­fore dawn on the long­est day of the year at home in the village of an­ces­tors. No one called for help, or the “au­thor­i­ties”. He was al­ready home with us. His body was washed and pre­pared for his cof­fin by his daugh­ter and sis­ter-in-law. He was laid out in his own front sit­ting room in an open cof­fin as his grand­chil­dren, three, five and nine, played at the cof­fin’s feet.

His com­mu­nity, his rel­a­tives, some strangers even, came in great numbers to pray at his side, feast, talk, gos­sip about sheep prices or the stock mar­ket, and openly mark his death in count­less hand­shakes and “Sorry for your trou­ble” ut­ter­ances.

We waked to­gether through the night with Sonny’s corpse to guard the pas­sage out for his de­part­ing soul and man the Gate of Chaos against Hades’ in­vad­ing horde lest the su­per­nat­u­ral world sought to in­vade the liv­ing world. Just as the Tro­jans too be­fore us had watched over Hec­tor’s corpse. A per­pet­ual quo­rum; dy­ing in each other’s lives and liv­ing on in each other’s deaths at ev­ery wake ever since.

It was bless­ing of a kind, an act of grace. We give our­selves, our mor­tal pres­ence, in such death shar­ings, or we give noth­ing at all; all the rest of our pow­ers, wealth, po­si­tion, sta­tus, are use­less.

To be truly hu­man is to bear the bur­den of our own mor­tal­ity and to strive, in grace, to help oth­ers carry theirs; some­times lightly, some­times coura­geously. In com­mu­nally ac­cept­ing death into our lives through the Ir­ish wake we are all able to re­learn the first and old­est les­sons of hu­man­ity. How to be brave in ir­re­versible sor­row. How to reach out to the dy­ing, the dead and the be­reaved. How to go on liv­ing no mat­ter how great the rup­ture or loss. How to face your own.

And how, like Sonny, to teach your children to face their death too.

Death it­self be­came si­lenced by what might be called the West­ern Death Ma­chine

My Fa­ther’s Wake by Kevin Too­lis (Wei­den­feld & Ni­col­son, £16.99). To or­der a copy for £14.44, go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, on­line or­ders only. Phone or­ders min. p&p of £1.99.

Pho­to­graph Cour­tesy Kevin Too­lis/Many Rivers Films

Kevin Too­lis

Kevin’s fa­ther, Sonny

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