Mourning is important. Mourning is necessary. Last rites, farewell rituals; now I understand the magnified conventions of burials and vigils.
When a life comes to an end abruptly, without due decay of age and illness, when youth is disgraced by an unceremonious death, then the loss becomes perpetual, the mourning is eternal, and sorrow is born. Like an infant, it needs to be tended to, weep to maturity, until it becomes an existence in itself, to fill the void left by the untimely demise of its origin. Then, perhaps, the debt is paid. Then, perhaps, the order of things is spared of merciless trauma.
It is not just humans that are living. The bonds between them have lives of their own. They, too, have natural courses of life and death. They, however, can be killed off with bloodshed, buried without trail, drowned in the dead of the night.
And that is what makes feelings dangerous: our self-deceptive ease of their denial. That is what makes them terrifyingly powerful.
When you love in silence, you do not yet know – you one day might have to mourn in silence, too. You might have to deny yourself the faintest whisper of devastating pain. And one day, you wake up to find it gone. And you embrace your newfound faith in the miracle of forgetfulness, the numbing balm of time.
But that’s the thing about undocumented assaults – you fling the evidence of your crimes into a river and walk away and one day find yourself under trial for a dead body that washes ashore on the riverbank of memory.
You wonder if the bitterness ever goes away. You think abandoning a feeling would make it wither, until one night, there is again poison trickling down your insides. All you asked was not to be the harbour where bitterness comes to find anchor. All you ever asked was to become the ocean itself.
Your deeds, your excesses, your injustice, your trauma, your unwept tears, your unspoken pains – everything catches up with you like mad hounds you couldn’t throw off your scent.
It is immensely naïve and profoundly ignorant for man to believe that the laws of universe are null and void in the empty spaces between each of our lives. How is that, an action has to have a reaction, but that human action has no consequences? That the things we do to each other deflect into some dark black abyss from where nothing ever returns? Do we actually believe that if we manage to inflict pain upon someone who does not have it in their power to claim retribution or recompense, the scores are settled? Accounts balanced? Charges dismissed? Case closed?
It’s the people who leave you for dead. Or those who drive you to the edge of cliffs and turn back just in time to avoid having to watch you fall. Somehow they think, not being a witness to the crime mitigates their culpability, diminishes their responsibility, validates their denial.
If it is ignorance, it is blind; if self-deception, destructive. Nothing ever really goes away. We do, and we will; but the legacy of endured, undeserved pain, stays.
The laws of the universe are not null and void – they are in vicious motion. It is only a matter of time. Time: the unknown variable, the great equaliser, the unrelenting ombudsman.
Standing around in a churchyard and going for soup and sandwiches after a funeral is part of a centuries-old tradition, but we have had to adapt to different grieving measures due to Covid-19, writes Joyce Fegan.
AT THE height of the global pandemic, just 10 mourners were allowed per funeral. When restrictions were eased that number only increased to 25.
Wakes did not happen. There was no gathering in churchyards to shake the hands of the bereaved and no soup and sandwiches in the local pub afterwards to share stories about the life of the deceased.
This curtailment of our oldest and most celebrated ritual has meant that people have not been able to grieve their loved ones nor be consoled by the sympathies of others, as they normally would have been.
Donal Forde has been burying people for 35 years but, in 2020, funerals as he knew them changed.
“They [the public] miss the physical contact of being able to shake hands and hug. There were people who would have always expected big crowds at their funeral and that didn’t happen.
“The general public miss being able to go to funerals. People like to offer their support — just being there and shaking hands can mean so much,” says Donal.
When it was down to 10 mourners only, families found that restriction particularly hard but, with 25, most families could just about manage.
While removals, wakes and refreshments have all stopped, Irish people did different things to pay their respects during the pandemic.
“At the rural funerals, you’d have people on every corner, from the house to church and from the church to cemetery, paying their respects. And in the city, it’s gathering outside the house,” explains Donal.
However, what has had the biggest effect on people, in his observation, is families being unable to be with their loved ones as they die.
“The biggest thing we’ve noticed with families is the not being able to enter into nursing homes and hospitals and the just getting in on last few days. That’s had a big effect on people. Or only one family member has been allowed in,” he states.
The effect has been, people are still upset. It’s hard to know how it will affect them in the long term.
One organisation that flagged the possible side effects of grieving in exceptional times was the Irish Hospice Foundation (IHF).
Orla Keegan is the head of education and bereavement services at the IHF. At the height of the pandemic, the IHF decided to set up a bereavement helpline for people experiencing the death of someone they loved because of Covid-19 or a death from other causes.
They realised that people may also be finding a previous bereavement more difficult at this time.
While so much was “unknown” in March 2020, the helpline was set up and modelled on the “notion of psychological first aid or bereavement first aid”, says Orla.
People of all age groups ring the helpline, from adult children to friends and people in their 20s right up to their 90s.
As head of education, Orla says that the foundation is very clear to “never minimise a loss”.
The longer you’ve had someone, the more you’ve had to lose and mourn. There is a lifetime of memories.
People say: ‘Oh, you get used to loss as you get older’, but that is a myth,” she says.
Orla says that the wake, removal and funeral all serve functions for human beings and each of those have been “disrupted” this year.
“They help us come to terms with the reality of the death, that physical presence. The being there at the time of death helps with that, so too does the funeral. It also helps us feel our pain and have our pain witnessed by the community and, in viewing pain, people want to come towards us to commiserate. It’s part of the social contract.
“It’s showing us the person’s place in the community. You get to really define who that person was; you’re beginning that part of telling the story. You meet people you haven’t seen for years and they’re telling stories you’d never heard — it could be your father’s work colleague.
“So that got a bit disrupted, to put it frankly. People have to find different ways of doing it or they are feeling robbed or cut off from that,” says Orla.
The Christian funeral is of “profound importance to Irish society, allowing a celebration of the life of the deceased,” says historian Dr Marion McGarry.
The rituals surrounding our funerals allowed the bereaved to mourn, grieve and, hopefully, recover in a healthy manner.
She says the purpose of rituals at an Irish funeral is twofold.
“It is a way for the community to mark the passing of one of their members and show sympathy to those who have lost their loved ones,” says Dr McGarry.
For the bereaved, seeing people turn up in this way, gathering together in large numbers to shake hands, acknowledges their grief and can be of great comfort.
Going back hundreds of years, Irish people have had the wake, in various forms, and the sharing of refreshments afterwards.
“In older times, there were many rituals and practices around Irish wakes and funerals. People would ritually smoke clay pipes at wakes, professional mourners or ‘keeners’ were hired to cry over the dead and there were even ‘wake games’ played to keep mourners awake as they sat up with the corpse.
“These customs have fallen away and, while the Irish funeral is more sombre now than it was in older times, it differs little from the past where prayers were said, refreshments were provided, alcohol may have been served, and stories and occasional laughter were welcome,” she explains.
With Covid-19, neither the wake nor the sharing of food and drink were permitted.
“The wake — that allows time spent with the body — can help in the grieving process. The substantial funeral service and burial, with the time taken and numbers involved, are all curtailed. After the burial, time taken to share food with neighbours and friends is no longer allowable,” states Dr McGarry.
Proving the importance of funerals to Irish people is the fact that you don’t just attend funerals of people you know, “there is an unspoken rule that you attend funerals of those closely related to people you know too”.
Case Study: ‘I lost six people this year — I couldn’t even say goodbye to my own mother’
Niall Lynch lost six people this year, including his mother, Ursula Lynch, 93.
She died at the height of lockdown which meant he was unable to see her in the weeks leading up to her death.
It also meant his wife and children had to wait in the car outside the church during his mother’s funeral mass.
Several days later his wife’s father would pass away too, still in lockdown, so it was now Niall who would be watching the funeral on his phone in the car outside the church.
“My mother had dementia, she was in a nursing home in Navan, she died April 6. Vascular dementia shuts down different functions, and her swallow function shut down, so she hadn’t eaten solids in a week. This was the second or third time this happened in nine months, and at 93 you can’t survive too many bouts like that.
“It was in lockdown and my sister was able to visit her through the window, but my mother couldn’t really see her because she had limited eyesight. Then my sister was with her for the last hour, by her side. They called her and said: ‘You’d better get here’.
They met her at the front door of the nursing home, gowned her, and she was given 60 minutes with my mother. She couldn’t touch her. They were being super careful,” says Niall.
Niall last saw his mother on March 13, the day after the first tranche of government restrictions were announced.
So when Ursula passed away on April 6, the full lockdown had been enforced and his family was left grappling with manoeuvring itself through different counties and Government restrictions.
Niall was stopped four times by gardaí on the way to his 93-year-old mother’s funeral.
“It was strange at first, you’re trying to get your head around things and calculate this and that and where can we go, what are we allowed to do. The funeral home was open for max an hour, you had to stay your distance – all the usual stuff you now take for granted was granted.
“And we were travelling from Cavan to Meath, so we worried about that and being stopped by the guards. So I said: ‘I’ll keep RIP up on my phone if guards stop us’, and they did. We were stopped four times and they saw us as a family dressed up,” explains Niall.
Niall was able to see his mother in the funeral home before her mass, and his children were too, so everyone was able to say their goodbyes.
“Just to be able to do that little thing,” says Niall.
As lockdown was so new and so little was known about the spread of the virus, extreme caution was taken, meaning that when Ursula’s coffin arrived at the church, the front door was not open.
“The undertaker had to rap the door and the priest opened the door and said it was locked because he had to make sure it was no one else and that’s why he had it bolted. Only 10 of us were allowed in and I had to give the undertaker a list of those people and he showed it to priest who kept a record.
“The priest led us in and it was quite strange – this large open church with galleries upstairs it was like sitting in the Gaiety with 10 people and you could see the emptiness,” says Niall.
Ursula had six children, meaning there wasn’t room for sons and daughters-in-law, nor grandchildren.
My wife and children sat in the car park and watched it on the parish webcam.
One thing that Niall missed was the Navan tradition of neighbours and friends gathering for the “big old chat in the chapel yard”.
“You’d look forward to that, that was all gone. Now you’re reading comments on RIP and it was just ‘goodbye old neighbours’ and that was as close as you got to locals coming up to you in the chapel yard saying that your mother was an ‘auld native’ and that she was a ‘good one’. My mother would have loved that,” says Niall.
At the graveside, cousins gathered, but again everyone kept their physical distance and as soon as his mother Ursula was buried “there was nothing after that,” as everyone went their separate ways.
Ten days later, Niall’s father-in-law, Tom White, 88, died unexpectedly. He had been up and about walking at home, when he developed a chest infection.
He ended up in hospital but it was arranged that two of his family members could go on a rota and be with him for the last two days of his life.
“They all got to see him, and one of them got to be with him when he died,” explains Niall.
This funeral was a “rural affair” and “people lined the roadsides” as his coffin passed. Again, the 10-mourner rule applied as Tom died on April 15, however, there were far more than 10 in his family as he was survived by his wife Teresa, 10 children and 24 grandchildren.
“I remember the undertaker saying: ‘Between you and me I think I’ve let 11 in’,” says Niall.
At Tom’s graveside, with everyone dotted around with two metres apart, about 19 of his grandchildren joined together in song and sang as his coffin was lowered into the ground.
Niall would attend four more funerals, his aunt, a daughter of a very good friend of his and two first cousins, Declan Reilly, 60, of Swords, Co Dublin, and PJ Lynch, 74, of Clontarf and Artane, Co Dublin.
“We used to check in with each other all the time, we were the three from the three different families that always touched base with each other,” explains Niall.
Both of those funerals took place during the Level 5 restrictions.
Niall has seen both the good and bad in 2020.
“What we used to dissipate our grief with was company and chat and ritual and we’ve not been able to do that, but on the other hand, and it’s strange to say it, but it has been a kind of a gift. We’ve been forced into a space we might not otherwise have allowed ourselves to have – to sit back and contemplate,” believes Niall.
The good and the bad aside, Covid-19 has taught him to express any love or gratitude he has for a person, before it’s too late.
“Too much loss and lack of memory and ‘biting of the holy cords atwain’ is going to affect us all for years. Who knows for the better or the worse? So I know that every phone call I make is a must. I don’t want to lose anyone else without saying ‘I love you, I’m grateful for knowing you, you made a difference’ in whatever way I can say it and without delay.
“Because all we have right now is now. We can only hope that [a life] lived well, will carry us through to some friendlier place. We may someday be grateful, even, for what changes Covid-19 wrought in us”.
Case Study: She mouthed ‘I love you’, and she was gone
Margaret Kelly lost her mother Mary O’Connor (née Duggan), 89, on October 6.
Mary, raised in Frankfield View on the Old Youghal Road, had been living on Capwell Road until her death.
However, Mary, who loved company and “out”, moved in with Margaret for the duration of lockdown.
“Mum lived on her own, but she lived with me and my husband and daughter for March and April, we had her for 12 weeks, it’s a blessing. I finished up work on Tuesday and collected her on the Tuesday evening.
“Her biggest thing was loneliness. She said to me: ‘If I don’t die of Covid I would have died of loneliness’.
“I live in Carrignavar, and we would drive down to the end of the road and she would walk that park every single day during lockdown, it was 350 steps but that was a huge deal to her.
“My husband and I would get up and have breakfast and take the dogs out. When we’d come home, she’d be sitting waiting with her coat on to go for that walk,” explains Margaret.
Unfortunately Mary took a fall on May 23, which resulted in a hip replacement. Mary was taken to hospital by army personnel and because she had been watching the news every night with Margaret and her family, she was well aware of what was ahead of her in terms of no visitors.
Mary recovered from her hip operation and returned home to her own house.
However, in October, she fell ill.
“In October she wasn’t feeling well. My son used to take her out every single Friday for lunch. She loved out, if you were getting the car NCT-ed she’d go with you.
“She was ages opening the front door and this was unusual, when my son got in, she just collapsed into his arms. That was a Friday and she passed on the Tuesday, she was brought into the Mercy Hospital and I got a phone call to say there was no hope, she had pneumonia,” says Margaret.
The fact that it early October, meant that the country was neither in Level 5 restrictions, nor lockdown, so Margaret was able to be with her mother as she passed.
The hospital was also very quiet, so they had peace of mind when visiting Mary.
Margaret describes the experience of her mother’s passing as both “beautiful” and something she is extremely grateful for.
My mum wasn’t talking but she was rubbing our hands and our faces and blowing kisses – that was her down to the ground.
“I said: ‘Mam you need to go, don’t be hanging on for us’, and with that she mouthed: ‘I love you’ and she was gone. There was no drama. It was beautiful and we were with her,” says Margaret.
“My mum’s own mum died when she was six weeks old, and she always had one dream in life and that was to meet her own mother, and at nearly 90, it was still always at the back of her mind. The fact that she was finally going to meet her mum gave us great solace,” she adds.
For the funeral, only 25 people were allowed into the church, but something special happened after the mass, that eased the restrictions.
“When we came out of the church and passed mam’s house, all the neighbours were out. The older people are so respectful and they all had their hands clasped, it was all people could do,” says Margaret.
Although losing her mother during 2020 was “not ideal”, gratitude is one of her overriding feelings.
“It wasn’t ideal, but we are so grateful to the Mercy. We didn’t take being with her for granted, and it has to be said because there are so many people out there who didn’t have that,” says Margaret.
Mary O’Connor was predeceased by her beloved husband Finbarr of 48 years. She is survived by her children Donal, Norma and Margaret, and her four grandchildren Yvonne, Darren, Graham and Leanne.
‘We can’t stay in touch on Zoom, it’s taking away our humanity’
For the first time in human history, in peacetime, we saw funerals physically banned in some countries, and heavily restricted in others.
But marking death and respecting the dead is what makes us human, and what makes us different from every other species on earth.
It is this basic fact that makes funerals extremely significant, says UCC professor of sociology Arpad Szakolczai. His work focuses on social theory, historical sociology, and political anthropology — the scientific study of humanity.
“The origin of human culture is related to burial, marking the dead makes us humans, burials go back half a million years,” says Prof Szakolczai.
“Remembering the dead and burying the dead, is one of the main, if not the most important source of human culture.”
Any time in human history when the dead have not been respected was a sign of breakdown in culture.
“The Iliad ends with Hector humiliating the dead body of an enemy — this is never appropriate,” says Prof Szakolczai.
But in 2020 terms, and in peacetime, he feels strongly about the impact of restrictions on rituals surrounding death.
“Prohibiting burial rituals, not taking proper care of the dead, is a very serious issue,” says the professor.
There are other factors around death, aside from the funeral itself, that have been affected by Covid-19 restrictions.
“Dying at home or with family was the normal condition for humans — that was the way of saying farewell to the dead,” said Prof Szakolczai.
“To discontinue these rituals — I don’t agree at all, it disrupts customs and family ties.”
While this did not happen in Ireland during the pandemic, some funerals were banned in their entirety to stop the spread of Covid-19 in other countries.
Prof Szakolczai describes this practice as “quasi- apocalyptic”.
“Death was also about the departing soul being given some kind of rest. What happens to people who are not buried properly? It’s quasi-apocalyptic, it’s not an enlightened condition.
“There is a problem that we don’t take care of the dead.”
In Ireland in particular, out of many countries in the world, funeral and burial rituals have all been “preserved in an exemplary manner”.
“It’s an important custom that has stayed on, but now it’s interrupted,” says Prof Szakolczai.
However, we have been able to attend people’s funerals virtually. Does this not go some way to creating ritual around death?
Prof Szakolczai says “virtual reality” is not a real connection, and our physical presence is most important when it comes to death.
“Virtual reality — that’s another kind of issue, the importance of presence and concreteness cannot be underestimated when it comes to death,” he says. “Virtual reality is the elimination of presence and the delusion of family ties, that’s not a real connection.
“You can’t spread holy water through the internet.”
Physical presence is fundamental to our humanity, states the professor.
“It’s nonsense that we can stay in touch on Zoom, it’s taking away our humanity. It’s an extremely serious issue.
“We are human, we are not competitors of artificial intelligence.”
With all the advances in science and proliferation of knowledge, death still remains “this big mystery” to human beings.
“We don’t have a scientific answer about what survives after death, and this is what human beings have always thought about, it has never gone away,” says Prof Szakolczai.
Many anthropologists consider death, not birth, the most important turning point of human life.
Birth is an event, and it is hugely significant for the parents, but there are very few memories associated with the new life.
Death is the opposite.
“Birth involves a limited number of people, and there are not many memories when a new born baby is very little,” says Szakolczai. “However, when someone dies, everything that person lived through and who they interacted with come together.
“Death and funeral rituals show that we care about us, family and friends and colleagues and people. It’s crucial to keeping society together, and it is among the most important rituals for human life — and that [belief] is shared by historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists.”
Prof Szakolczai says he hopes that the interruption of social practices, such as funerals, and the disruption of human relations, through social distancing, will not continue for much longer.
“We shouldn’t get used to this, that’s the point. If a generation is brought up like this, what is the effect?”
Last February, Nancy Chouinard took her father out to dinner. Two months later the world had changed, and her dad, Norman Ginstling, passed away alone in a hospital.
The funeral was held over Zoom. There was nobody at the grave. “I feel like the grief process has completely been delayed,” Nancy said. “When it ended, you just shut your computer. And that was it. You’re back in your life.”
Watch the animated story below:
Norman was born on July 4, 1935, and grew up in New York. He was a private pilot, an accountant and a jazz lover, and kept very involved in the lives of his children and grandchildren. Since his death, over 285,000 more Americans have died of covid-19.
I think that when things go back to normal, I’ll miss him more.
Nancy spoke with us in early October from her home in Maryland, in a conversation for this animated story.
Hours before the grandfather died on a COVID-19 hospital floor, his closest kin entered the room two at a time, all covered in protective gowns, gloves, masks and face shields.
Barely breathing, the family patriarch pointed to each of his loved ones, then to his heart, and raised a fist in the air.
This was not how relatives had envisioned their last moments with 68-year-old Rubén Beltrán of northwest suburban Hanover Park, one of more than 12,000 lives lost to the new virus in Illinois and 1.4 million worldwide.
“But it was a blessing that we were able to say goodbye,” said granddaughter Amairani Jarvis, who planned Beltrán’s funeral in November. “Because I know a lot of people are dying alone right now, and they’re not allowed to say goodbyes to their loved ones.”
Just as the pandemic has altered so many aspects of life, it has also disrupted the experience of death and grieving. In response, mourners are creating new and innovative ways to honor the dying and departed while keeping within the bounds of pandemic protocols.
Many of these adaptations draw on cultural customs and ancient religious rites, said Roy Grinker, an anthropology professor at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who is co-leading a yearlong study on changes in funeral practices during the pandemic.
“There’s an extraordinary resilience and creativity of people to figure out how to do what they need to do in order to mourn, in order to grieve,” Grinker said.
A Muslim funeral director in Australia began giving out smaller bottles of perfume used during the ritual shrouding of a body, because the smell was such a powerful connection to the dead. She explained how family members would traditionally wash and shroud their loved one, but when this practice was interrupted by the pandemic, next-of-kin expressed difficulty coming to terms with the loss, sometimes wondering if their parent or spouse or sibling had even died. The familiar fragrance helped the grieving process.
“They could then use that as a very sensory way of remembering their loved one,” the funeral director said during a virtual roundtable discussion on the impact of COVID-19 regulations on death and dying.
In upstate New York, a funeral director commemorated the life of a beloved football coach by sending whistles to mourners, a tactile and aural reminder of the deceased. At a funeral in Oklahoma, clear masks enabled mourners who were deaf to read lips and see facial expressions.
In another case the anthropologists studied, around 100 people attended a funeral but only 10 were permitted at the gravesite; the other 90 friends and family members stayed out of the cemetery but climbed a fence lining the perimeter, to view and be a part of the moment the coffin was lowered into the ground, Grinker recounted.
Loss and healing rely in so many ways on the five senses. The sight of a body at an open-casket funeral. The scent of flowers at a memorial. The taste of certain foods while sitting shiva, in the tradition of Jewish mourning. The comforting melody of dirges and chanting. An embrace in shared grief.
There is a near-universal need for communal mourning, which becomes increasingly difficult with physical distance requirements, said Grinker, who was born and raised in Chicago.
“Whatever religion, whatever tradition we’re talking about, one of the common threads is the difficulty of not being able to be with others in large groups, to touch each other and to stimulate each other’s emotional release,” he said.
For the study, called Rituals in the Making, researchers are interviewing clergy, funeral directors and mourners; the project was funded by the National Science Foundation and is expected to be complete in May.
“We’re doing these things in different ways than we did before,” he said. “We are still trying to manage this important transition in social life, where we need to not only deal with our own emotional concerns but also have to carry out the cultural practices of transitioning somebody from the world of the living to the world of the dead.”
Disconnect from death
The Beltrán family gathered for the visitation on Nov. 13 at Symonds-Madison Funeral Home in Elgin. Everyone donned black masks bearing the inscription “forever in our heart” in gold letters.
The message professed their eternal love for the deceased. The material served as a tangible defense against the virus that Beltrán had battled for a month, before his lungs collapsed and he could no longer breathe on his own.
The colors matched the black and gold urn holding his cremated remains. A Spanish version of the mask, “siempre en nuestro corazón,” was sent to Beltrán’s relatives in Mexico, along with a small packet of his ashes to be scattered near the home where he was born and raised.
“We gave him a pretty good farewell,” Jarvis said. “We sent him to Mexico, gave him a celebration here. We did it to the best of our ability.”
Daniel Symonds, a second-generation funeral director who arranged Beltrán’s services, fears for the emotional burden of those left behind when they aren’t able to grieve in a typical manner.
He recounts a group of siblings who lost a brother early in the pandemic. Another sibling was high-risk for contracting the virus, so they decided to pay for a memorial and have the body cremated, but wait to hold services until they could gather safely.
That memorial still hasn’t happened. Symonds worries that this family and others in a similar state of limbo won’t be able to process their loss or begin healing.
“When you can’t see them, you can’t say goodbye to them, that causes guilt, anger sadness, frustration, depression,” he said. “We are a communal society. That’s something we need to get through the pain.”
Narratives on social media sites offer a glimpse at some of the heartache of survivors who feel a disconnection from death.
A Texas woman on the website Reddit recalled how her 93-year-old mother-in-law died of COVID-19 without any loved ones by her hospital bedside.
“My mother-in-law created a huge family, she dedicated her life to all these offspring and remembered everyone’s birthdays and loved catching up on family news good and bad,” the comment said. “And she was there alone — probably the first time in her life she’d been alone. … This is not what she deserved.”
A New York rabbi posted on Twitter in April about presiding over the burial of 95-year-old Holocaust survivor. The rabbi explained that under normal circumstances, members of Jewish burial societies would have come to perform tahara, a ritual cleansing of the body.
“It is the most dedicated and conscious act, to perform these rites,” the rabbi said. “Not this day. Tahara is not happening. It’s not safe. Typically the body is watched until burial. Guarded by members of the community. Her son called me heartbroken. … No guard. Her body, like ours is to be alone.”
Since then, various Jewish burial societies have created virtual components of the ritual or modifications designed to minimize exposure, like misting the body instead of washing, and integrating strict rules for infection control as well as use of personal protective equipment.
The modified version used by a Jewish burial society in Boston includes the prayer: We ask your forgiveness for any distress we may cause you during this tahara, most of all for the ways in which we have had to modify the ritual preparation of your body for its final journey. … During this time of plague that besets and endangers all, the changes we make are an affirmation of the life you have lived and the lives of those who care for you now.
Present, at a distance
There’s a certain closure in viewing a final resting place.
Until Jarvis saw her grandfather’s ashes lowered into the ground, she didn’t quite believe he was gone.
Beltrán, a cancer survivor, had been in and out of the hospital for years even before he contracted COVID-19. Until the interment, Jarvis kept thinking her grandfather was just hospitalized like before and would be coming home again soon.
Days before services, the arrangements had to be revamped due to rapidly evolving limits on gatherings amid a surge of COVID-19 cases. Only 10 relatives were permitted at the gravesite, a difficult mandate for the large, tight-knit clan. Beltrán was survived by his wife of 48 years, six children, 16 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“My family was upset,” Jarvis said. “But we all understood what the regulations were. We all understood why. We had just gone through that with my grandfather. It started with COVID. COVID took his life.”
To be safer, some funerals have begun integrating cars into the service, a modern twist to preserve ancient customs or accommodate big crowds.
A funeral director in Washington state recalled a March burial for a grandmother who just arrived months ago from Ukraine; the family longed for an open-casket service, a cultural tradition, so the funeral home arranged for an open coffin viewing in its van at a site a near the cemetery, encircled by the cars of loved ones to maintain some privacy.
“It wasn’t what they wanted — it wasn’t what they ever would have envisioned — but it was something,” the funeral director said.
A funeral home in Texas recently built a drive-in funeral theater, where services on a large outdoor screen are viewed by relatives and friends from their parked cars.
“This also allows the family to feel the love and support they need at a time of loss and grief,” the funeral home’s website said. “The service concludes with three honks representing comfort, support and love as they drive away.”
A large part of the George Washington University study examines how traditional death rituals are being transformed into virtual practices, from “Zoom funerals” to video-recorded memorials to livestreamed visitations.
Results have been mixed. Some mourners said glitches and Wi-Fi outages compromised the occasion; there were instances where the grieving reported clicking on a link that took them to the wrong funeral or memorial, Grinker said.
In other cases, virtual rituals were surprisingly gratifying — even rivaling traditional in-person rites and practices.
Screens helped Grinker, the anthropologist, navigate his own grief earlier in the pandemic after his 95-year-old mother died of natural causes in Chicago. The family held a virtual memorial, the first time Grinker’s 93-year-old father ever spoke to anyone using a computer.
The online gathering allowed more people across the country to mourn together, he said, expanding his father’s opportunity to celebrate his mother’s life.
“It was actually quite emotionally powerful for him in a way I think it perhaps wouldn’t have been if people had been able to visit at the house,” Grinker said. “It’s about creating social bonds. These are times when we reaffirm our relationships. And if we can’t do that, it makes us feel all the more isolated.”
As for Jarvis, she described feelings of guilt that she was among the 10 relatives standing at the gravesite, potentially taking the place of another relative during that pivotal moment of interment.
To help include everyone, she created a Facebook page with photos and a livestream of Beltrán’s funeral. Relatives across the country and in Mexico were able to pray along with the funeral Mass and see the gravesite immediately, an experience the family wouldn’t have thought to create if it weren’t for the pandemic.
“We were able to make people present, while still keeping distance,” she said.
A growing number of South Korean women are training to be morticians, a field from which they had long been excluded, amid changing views on gender roles and a rising preference for women’s bodies to be handled by women.
With recent deaths of female celebrities and prominent figures, as well as growing scrutiny of sex crimes against women, gender sensitivity is changing the way families of the deceased bid farewell to their grandmothers, mothers and daughters.
“I felt uncomfortable when my classmates of a different sex touched my body, even when I was fully dressed,” said Park Se-jung, 19, who is in her second year of funeral directing studies. “I sure wouldn’t want them to touch, wash and dress my naked body even if I were dead. I am determined I should be the one bidding those women a proper farewell.”
The trend comes amid growing calls for crackdowns of sexual violence against women, including a rash of hidden-camera crimes, “revenge porn”, and online networks that blackmailed women and girls into sharing sexual and sometimes violent images of themselves.
In the early 2000s, about a third of mortician students in the country were women, but today they make up around 60% of the class, said Lee Jong-woo, a professor of embalming at Eulji University in Seongnam near Seoul.
“With Confucian ideology, death was considered a taboo in South Korea in the past, and had negative perceptions of whether women could handle such work, but the perception has been changing,” Lee said.
Funeral companies say they have been receiving more requests for female morticians.
“Most of the deaths of young people are suicides, and the families of the bereaved, especially if it was suicide and a woman, feel more comfortable if we handle the body,” said Park Bo-ram, a funeral director of seven years.
“I recall a teenaged student, an only child … had committed suicide,” Park said. “Washing and dressing the body, I saw many signs of self-injury on her thigh, but none of her family knew.”
Park recalls that the girl’s parents were immensely grateful, even in the midst of sadness, that a female mortician handled their daughter’s body.
South Korea’s suicide rate is the highest in the developed world: 24.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019, compared with an OECD average of 11.3. That year, it was the No. 1 cause of death among teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s.
More than 4,000 women committed suicide in 2019, including young female K-pop artists Koo Hara and Sulli.
In 2016, a quarter of the country’s 6,200 funeral directors were women, and with more than 130,000 girls and women dying each year, requests for female funeral directors are expected to rise further, Korea Employment Information Service said.
Yet some resistance to women in the mortuary business remains.
Shin Hwa-jin, 21, who plans to work at a funeral home after graduation, said she was shocked to hear a female mortician relate a conversation with her mother-in-law.
“Her mother-in-law asked her: ‘How dare you think of cooking my meals with the hands that touched a dead body?’” she said.
Demonstrating grief through wailing and song has long been a historic, sacred part of honouring and remembering the dead. From the Chinese to the Assyrians, Irish and Ancient Greeks, oral rituals of outward mourning were a responsibility that fell (and continue to fall) to women.
In Ancient Greece, while women may have lacked political and social freedom, the realm of mourning belonged to them. Their role in remembering the dead granted them their only position of power in a society where they possessed no autonomy. Yet this power was also believed to supersede mortal constraints, giving women the ability to do something that men could not.
The Greek funeral was composed of three parts: the prothesis, or preparation and laying out of the body; the ekphora, or transportation to the place of burial; and the burial of the body or the entombment of cremated remains. It was during the prothesis that the women began their ritual of lament. First, they cleansed the corpse, anointed it and decorated it with aromatic garlands as it lay atop its kline (bier). Once the body was prepared, scores of female relatives gathered around it to beat their breasts and tear the hair from their scalps as they sang funeral songs. They wished to communicate the awful weight of their grief in order to satisfy the dead, whom they believed could hear and judge their cries. In contrast, the men kept their distance to salute the dead, physically signifying their separation from the realm that belonged to women. Some art from the Geometric period suggests they may have joined the female mourners in writhing to the lament, though they were spared from the excruciating gesture of ripping out their hair.
The funeral song served as an extension of the physical pain women inflicted upon themselves during the prothesis. Its purpose was to communicate a cry of uncontrollable pain, a hysteric melody that was believed to be rooted in feminine emotions; thus, only women could be the vessels for this pain. In the depths of their sorrow and self-torture, female mourners in the Geometric period would have sung a melody from one of the four major funeral song categories: threnos, epikedeion, ialemos or goos. These songs were personal and meaningful to the bereaved. In her book Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (1979), which, through the art they have left behind, analyses how the Ancient Greeks viewed death, Emily Vermeule writes that goos was the most intense kind of funeral song. It might have been reserved for lovers or close family members, as its theme was centred on the relationship between two lives shared, the one now lost.
Leading the funeral lament was the song leader, also called the eksarkhos gooio, or the chief mourner. In early times, she was a professional mourner, but could also be the mother or close female relative of the dead. The song leader served as the liaison between those who mourned and those who had passed, guiding the bereaved through the proper course of remembrance in order to mollify the dead. As she led the female mourners in lament, she was careful to cradle the head of the corpse. Touch was necessary in order to open the ears of the dead. But once the ears were opened, the living women had to tread carefully. Not only could the dead hear funeral laments sung for them during the prothesis, they could also determine whether the presence of the living was good or malevolent. This is the reason, writes Robert Garland in The Greek Way of Death (1985), that Odysseus is advised against participating in Ajax’s funeral. Mourners entrusted their song leader with the responsibility of appeasing the dead to ensure their smooth transition into the spirit world.
As time went on, the role of female song leader would serve as the predecessor to an occult offshoot, the goes, who used song as a vehicle to transcend mortal constraints. Under the goes, funeral songs were no longer songs: they were spells, used to lure the dead back to earth. The goes was akin to a witch, due to her supernatural powers; she had even mastered the art of necromancy and could temporarily bring corpses back to life. Yet, even before the goes and the eksarkhos gooio, women in Ancient Greece had ties to the occult side of death. If the eksarkhos gooio was the mother of this occult tradition and the goes the maiden, the egkhystristriai was the crone. Before the classical period, the egkhystristriai was believed to have officiated at the burial of the body. Like an occult high priestess, her powers stemmed from the ritual of making blood sacrifices to the dead. Later, these sacrifices turned into the more modest ritual of offering libations, exemplified as Antigone pours offerings over her brother Polyneikes after she performs rites over his body.
By the fifth century BC mourning rituals had become less elaborate and deliberately reduced the importance of the female role. The number of female lamenters who surrounded the dead dwindled from scores of close relatives to only a few. Laments became more antiphonal and grew to involve men. Gestures such as tearing the hair were replaced by the symbolic gesture of cutting the hair short. These later changes suggest that the Greeks believed their dead were in less need of appeasement, eradicating the need for a song leader with supernatural inclinations. But they attempted to diminish the role that women had in the death process, thus dismantling a space in which women held dominance. In the classical period, women were relegated to the background of the funerary ritual, writes Maria Serena Mirto in Death in the Greek World (2012), because men feared it would threaten social cohesion and their desire for death to be pro patria, for one’s country. This is evident from Greek state funeral records, such as that in Kerameikos, the Athens cemetery, in which female lamenters are only briefly mentioned, suddenly peripheral to the ritual they had previously orchestrated.
The trend of removing women from the centre of death is not exclusive to Ancient Greece. While some cultures, such as the Assyrians, fought to preserve the role of female lamenters, others have been unable to do so.As Richard Fitzpatrick reported in the Irish Examiner in 2016, in Ireland, the tradition of female keeners, who wail in grief, began to die out in the mid-20th century. In the United States, male funeral directors replaced the long-standing tradition of female layers-out. Women were left behind, as the funeral directors attempted and succeeded at monetising the death industry, a legacy that continues to haunt the recently bereaved, who must deal with costly funeral arrangements.
Today, however, we find ourselves in the midst of a death renaissance, spearheaded by morticians, activists and artisans alike – a majority of whom are women. Ancient mourning rituals and traditions are resurging. Perhaps the role of the female song leader as a spiritual caster of spells will find its way back, too.
One needs to put oneself in the sandals of a dying Greek to understand the mind frame of the ancient Greeks and to understand why they did the things that they did. Also, one needs to live an ancient Greek death following all the rites of passage and the burial laws.
The ancient Greeks held certain ideas about death. One of the most characteristic motifs that people find on ancient Greek tombstones is the handshake between the living and dead. Both figures invariably exhibit a dignified calm. That’s what Greek tragedy is all about—looking death squarely in the eye. As a Greek, they knew that terrible things happen; and they knew, too, that by confronting them head-on, they’d be able to deal with them and get on with life. One could posit that the Greeks got it just right.
But one needs to put oneself in the sandals of a dying Greek to understand it. It’s an unpleasant thought, but there’s no escaping it if one wants to fully experience the other side of history.
The Role of a Physician in Death
Let’s assume one is dying in one’s home, surrounded by one’s relatives, including young children. There won’t be any physician at hand to give painkillers.
A physician may have offered treatment in the earlier stages of sickness, but once it became inevitable that there could only be one outcome, the medical profession had nothing to offer anymore.
It’s also extremely unlikely that a physician would be called in to put one out of one’s misery by euthanasia, a coined word of Greek etymology meaning ‘good death’, but which has no ancient Greek equivalent. In fact, the Hippocratic Oath, which was probably widely adopted, enjoined upon those physicians who took it “not to administer a poison to anybody who asked for one and not to propose such a course”. So let’s hope that one’s final illness is short and painless.
The Role of Gods in Death
The poet Keats has a wonderful line in Ode to a Nightingale: “I have been half in love with easeful death”. The Greeks conceived of easeful death in the form of the God Apollo, who came to strike them down with his so-called ‘gentle arrows’. That’s the best that he or any other of the gods had to offer. They certainly didn’t have any consolation to give someone.
In Euripides’ play the Hippolytus, when Hippolytus is dying, the goddess Artemis, to whom he has devoted himself exclusively all his life and with whom he’s had a very close relationship, bids him farewell. She explains to him that it’s not lawful for a deity to be present at the death because the pollution that a corpse releases would taint her.
The one god who may have taken some slight interest in the fate of the dying is the healing God Asclepius. When Socrates passes from this world to the next in Plato’s dialogue the Crito, he has this to say, “I owe a cock to Asclepius. See that it’s paid.” Cocks were sacrificed to Asclepius. Socrates may be indicating that Asclepius eased his passing, although it’s possible, too, that he’s merely suggesting philosophically that death is a ‘cure’ for life.
The First Rite of Passage: Prothesis
in ancient Greece, as soon as one died, the women in one’s family began keening and ululating so that everyone in the neighborhood knew of the individual’s demise. It was the women, too, who took charge of one’s body and prepared it for burial. They closed one’s mouth and eyes, tied a chin strap around one’s head and chin to prevent the jaw from sagging; they washed the whole body, anointed it with olive oil; they clothed the body and wrapped it in a winding sheet, leaving only one’s head exposed.
Then they laid the body on a couch with one’s head propped up on a pillow and one’s feet facing the door. After getting all this done, they sang dirges in one’s honor.
This is the scene that is depicted on the very earliest Greek vases with figurative decoration. It’s called the prothesis, which literally means the laying out of the body. It represents the first stage in the process that will take one from this world to the next, ‘from here to there’, as the Greeks put it. Meanwhile, relatives and friends would call at the house and join in the grieving.
The Second Rite of Passage: Ekphora
The second rite of passage is the ekphora. Ekphora means literally ‘the carrying out of one’s body’—specifically from one’s home to one’s place of burial. According to Athenian law, the ekphora had to take place within three days of one’s death, although in hot weather it’s likely that it would have taken place much sooner. The ekphora had to take place before sunrise so that it wouldn’t create a public nuisance.
If one was wealthy, one’s body would be transported in a cart or carriage drawn by horses. This scene is also depicted on the earliest vases with figurative decoration. Professional undertakers might also be employed to bear the corpse and break up the ground for burial. These professionals were known as ‘ladder men’ klimakophoroi, because they’d lay one’s body on a ladder, which they carried horizontally.
If professional undertakers were employed, they wouldn’t have any physical contact with the family members before this phase. The Greeks would have been shocked and appalled by the idea of handing over one’s body to professionals to prepare it for burial.
The Third Rite of Passage: Burial
It was one’s relatives who conducted the burial service. No priests were present either. Priests were debarred for exactly the same reason that Artemis absented herself from the dying Hippolytus, so as not to incur pollution. Because if they incurred pollution, they might transmit it to the gods.
Absolutely nothing is known about the details of the burial service. Truth be told, it’s not even known if there was a burial service as such. If any traditional words were spoken, they were not recorded. Both inhumation and cremation were practiced, although cremation, being more costly, was seen as more prestigious. If one was cremated, then one’s relatives would gather the ashes and place them in an urn, which they then would bury along with the grave gifts.
The commonest grave gift was pottery. In fact, that’s why so many high-quality Greek vases have survived intact—because they were placed intact in the ground.
Over time, however, the Greeks became more stingy. Chances are, if one died in the 4th century B.C., all one would get is a couple of oil flasks known as lêkythoi filled with olive oil—olive oil was regarded as a luxury item. Some Greeks, however, were so stingy that they purchased lêkythoi with a smaller internal container to save them the expense of filling the whole vase with oil. Supposedly, they thought the dead wouldn’t notice.
As soon as the filling of the grave was done, they’d erect a grave marker over it. After completing the third and final rite of passage, all the mourners would return to the grieving home for a commemorative banquet.
The Burial Laws
Since one’s corpse was regarded as a source of pollution—the Greek word for the pollution is miasma, which means much the same in English—one had to be buried outside the city walls. In the ancient Greece, burial within a settlement was extremely rare after the 8th century B.C. The same was true of Rome. The earliest Roman law code, the Law of the Twelve Tables, dated 450 B.C., contains the provision, “The dead shall not be buried or burnt inside the city.”
It is not certain, but the origins of the belief in pollution may be connected with a kind of primitive sense of hygiene. Dead one’s relatives and anyone else who had come into contact with the corpse were debarred from participation in any activities outside the home until the corpse had undergone purification.
Reintegration into the community for mourners didn’t take place until several weeks after the funeral. One’s relatives also had to take measures to prevent the polluting effect of one’s corpse from seeping into the community. That included providing a bowl of water brought from outside the house so that visitors could purify themselves on leaving.
Common Questions About Living the Ancient Greek Death
Q: What are the three stages of an ancient Greek funeral?
The three stages are the laying out or the prothesis, the funeral procession or the ekphora, and the burial or the Interment.
Q: How did the Greeks honor the dead?
Greeks honored the dead by following the three rites of passage, by building the tombs in Ceramicus, the Potter’s Quarter, and by offering the grave goods.
Q: How did Greeks prepare for the afterlife?
Greeks prepared for the afterlife by following the three rites of passage and offering the grave goods.
Q: What was the burial law in ancient Greece?
According to the burial law in ancient Greece, one had to be buried outside the city walls.