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Winter Reading: My Father’s Wake, by Kevin Toolis

February 2, 2018

When you die, would you prefer to be disposed of with the minimum of fuss, your mortal remains removed from sight until they emerge encased in a wooden box for the short period between your funeral and incineration or interment?

And when a loved one dies, would you prefer not to think of their last hours, of their passage to nothingness or the hereafter?

The way of death favoured in most western societies is described by the Irish writer and broadcaster Kevin Toolis as the Western Death Machine. It’s designed, he says, to help us think as little as possible about death’s inevitability, and, in particular, our own death.

Shortly after Balithin, my Irish mother-in-law, died, I happened upon My Father’s Wake, Toolis’s meditation on the art of dying.

After experiencing Blaithin’s wake (about which I wrote in The Passing of a Matriarch), I wanted to know more about the Irish way of death. Toolis didn’t disappoint.

The central theme of his book is the rituals and traditions that accompanied the death of his father. Unlike Blaithin, he died at home. But like her, he was surrounded by loved ones until and beyond his last breath.

Sonny Toolis was like many Irish people of his generation – an exile who came home for his last years. He spent much of his life working in the UK, but never lost his attachment for his home village in an island off the wild Atlantic coast of County Mayo. Dookinella was a ruin – a victim of the emigration that depopulated the west of Ireland from the fifties onwards. But Sonny resolved to save the family home. Every summer he would bring the family back to the island, and bit by bit he brought the house back to life. It was there that he died.

The subtitle of the book is How the Irish Teach us to Live, Love and Die. From that you might deduce that it’s an Irish version of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s description of how she overcame bereavement to find spiritual nourishment and romance in Bali.

Far from it. Kevin Toolis, by his own admission, has spent much of his career in journalism as what he describes as a death hunter. During the troubles in Northern Ireland, he would seek out the families of victims of bombings and shootings. He would ask them in minute detail to describe the circumstances of their bereavement. How the victim died, how the bereaved felt, what they did on hearing the news.

He followed the same path in the Middle East, meeting fathers of suicide bombers in Palestine, and relatives of children wiped out in Israeli bombing raids on Gaza. His book is laced with experiences of death.

The same attention to detail informs his description of the rituals of the wake – the keening of the mourners, the touching of the body in its open coffin in the front room, the endless supply of tea and sandwiches for the stream of visitors, relatives or strangers alike, who would come to pay their respects.

Many of the rituals, Toolis contends, go back beyond Christianity. Throughout the narrative he refers to Homer’s descriptions of the deaths of warriors – of Hector and Patroclus – and to the deeply held belief that the dead’s future in the afterlife depends upon their treatment by the living. A proper burial, with all the proprieties observed.

In rural Ireland, those proprieties include the overnight vigil, in which groups of men take turns to be with the body at all times. As Toolis writes:

For our forebears, a wake and funeral were rites of closure that complete the ancestral life-death cycle, resolve grief and restore the natural order of the universe. Our ancestors believed that the dead needed the intervention of the living – prayers, food, spells – to help a departed soul make safe passage into the afterlife and find eternal rest. The dead had to be accompanied, waked, by living watchers as part of that journey through at least one solar cycle – day, night and then day – in the aftermath of their death. Hidden inside such a ritual is another ancient belief that somewhere in these hours of mingling darkness a portal opens between the living and the supernatural worlds through which the soul of the deceased departs.

Believing that the restless dead have powers to unravel the world of the living also makes a wake a dangerous place. Anthropologists define wakes as liminal rites, a stage where the forces of life and death contend for dominance, a place for powerful magic. Our forebears were afraid that the portal was not just one way; when the passage to Hades opened hordes of the unquiet dead could cross back to invade the living world. The watchers, as old as the quorum that watched over Hector’s body in Troy, are not just there to guard the soul of the departed but also to man the Gates of Chaos against an insurgent tide, a satanic horde ready to break through and crush us all.

I didn’t understand the depth of tradition that led one of Blaithin’s sons to spend the night next to her body. He was doing what that tradition demanded, perhaps unaware that his vigil would have been understood by Homer’s contemporaries.

My Father’s Wake has passages that are not for the fainthearted, particularly the descriptions of his time as a tubercular twelve-year old in a ward full of male lung-cancer patients, and of his visit to an AIDS hospital in Malawi.

But it’s a deeply humane book, far from being a technical manual for those who want a “good death”. It’s a lyrical journey through his own life and that of an ancient community on an island where a ruined Franciscan monastery sits near a Neolithic burial ground and a tiny burial ground for those whom the church refused to bless – stillborn babies, non-believers and suicides.

Kevin Toolis wants us to believe that we will better face death when we learn how to die. The Irish wake, he argues, with its tradition of mourning rites, the presence of the dead among the living, the free expression of emotion and the participation of the wider community, is a good place to start.

Having attended two wakes in Ireland – those of my wife’s parents – I agree with him, up to a point. I can’t say for sure that I’ll be ready when my time comes. Nor do I find it easy to accept – as he didn’t when one of his brothers died in his twenties – the untimely death of a loved one. My head might tell me that the deaths of those who don’t make it through to old age are part of the natural order of things. Yet my heart still rages against the unfairness of it. The result, perhaps, of a sense of entitlement to a long life that was never shared by previous generations, and still isn’t in many parts of the world

But should that time come again, I would surely find My Father’s Wake a comforting companion in grief. And yes, after you’ve stroked the hair or kissed the forehead of a lifeless beloved, death doesn’t seem so extraordinary. Not forbidden territory, just the end of a journey on which we all travel.

From → Books, History, Religion, Social, UK

  1. Thanks Steve. I needed to read this … I’ll get the book now.

    • Nice to hear from you Abdullah. I think you’ll find it interesting. S

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