How the Irish Teach Us to Die
Kevin Toolis in Praise of a Good Wake
In America Death is a whisper. Instinctively we feel we should dim the lights, lower our voices and draw the screens. We 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 mortality. We have lost our way with death.
On the Irish island off the coast of County Mayo, where my family have lived in the same village for the last 200 years, death speaks with a louder voice.
Along with the weather reports of incoming Atlantic storms, the local country and western radio station runs a thrice daily “deaths” announcement enumerating the names and the funeral arrangements of the ten or so daily freshly departed. There is even a pay-by-the-minute phone line, 95 cents, 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 humans across the planet die at an annual rate of one per cent; 200,000 dead people a day, 73 million dead people a year. An even spread. It’s happening all around you even as you read this article; the block opposite, the neighboring street and your local hospital.
If the local radio in New York did the same as that Mayo radio station the announcer would have to read out the names of 230 dead strangers, three times day, just to keep up.
Of course, if you live in a city like New York, 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. And likely deemed an outrage against “public decency” that would almost certainly lead to advertising boycotts and protests.
More shocking still would be the discovery of another country where the dying, the living, the bereaved and the dead still openly share the world and remain bound together. . . in the Irish wake. Where death, in its very ordinariness, is no stranger.
My father Sonny Toolis was an ordinary man. He was never rich nor powerful nor important. He never held public office and his name never appeared in the newspapers. He was born poor in a village on an island, devoid of electricity, water mains and paved roads, in much the same way the poor have been born in such places for most of human history. He worked on building sites most of his life to pay for his seven children’s university education. The world never paid him much attention and Sonny also knew the world never would.
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 at the Irish wake and showed him how to die too.
His dying, his wake, his willing sharing of his own death, would be his last parental lesson to his children and his community. A gift.
If you 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 beers around the corpse and an open coffin. But you would be wrong.
The wake is amongst the oldest rites of humanity, first cited in the great 8th-century BCE Homeric war poem The Iliad and commonly practised across Europe up until around 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 the same rituals would be easily recognisable to any Irish wake-goer today.
For our ancestors, a wake, with its weight of obligation between the living and the bodies of the dead, was a pathway to restore natural order to the world, heal up the mortal wound, and overcome, as a community, the death of any one individual. An act—in our thin, contemporary psychological jargon—of closure.
Through urbanization, industrialization and the medicalization of death the wake died away in most of the Western world at the hands of what we might call the Western Death Machine. But amongst the Celts this ancient form of death-sharing lives on.
When he was 70 my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which remains among the most fatal of cancers. Sonny never flinched. He did not want to die but when he knew he had no choice, he didn’t waste the time he had left. He wasn’t angry or embittered: 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 would ignore his impending mortality. Unlike the inclination to absence and denial that can occur in the Anglo-Saxon world, Sonny’s house filled with visitors who came to see him because he was dying.
Dying is an exhausting, self-centring act. Sonny, always a physically imposing man, shed his powers like a snake shedding skin. His world shrank to two rooms and Sonny knew he wouldn’t see the end of summer.
As Sonny’s fatherhood was ending my own was 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.
But our parting was fitting. There was no more mystery to share. No revelation. Our identities as father and son had already been written out in the deeds of our life together; Sonny changing my diaper as a child, not losing his temper at my teenage tantrums, encouraging me in my education, 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 our forefathers. 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 to man the Gate of Chaos against Hades’ invading horde lest the supernatural world enter the land of the living. The whole community, a perpetual quorum: dying in each other’s lives and living on in each other’s deaths at each wake 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 human is to bear the burden of our own mortality and to strive, in grace, to help others carry theirs—sometimes lightly, sometimes with great courage. In accepting death into our lives, our community, we 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 death.
And how, like Sonny, to teach your children to face their own deaths too.
Adapted from My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love, and Die by Kevin Toolis. Copyright ©2018. Available from Da Capo Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.