In times of bereavement, when that great hole of loss threatens to swallow us up, our traditions can be a holy liquid, a balm, making it is possible to swim in love and kindness even at the time of our deepest grief. My father explained to me that how you treat the dead is a good indication of how you’ll treat the living – that the only thing our relatives care about after they’re gone is to see us all together, remembering the good times and singing through our grief. My father told me, “There’s no hole so deep that the Irish can’t sing their way out of it.”
I’ve certainly heard the stereotypes of Irish wakes and funerals. That somehow they are sob fests or wild parties. I’d say they are more gentle, affectionate and even entertaining send-offs.
We held my parents and grandparents’ funerals at the church where I grew up, St. Thomas More, on the southwest side of Chicago. Our church was “modern” when it was built in 1960. Inside, a scooped-out collage swoops over the altar like half an eggshell. The collage artist didn’t even try to stay within the lines: God the Father merges with God the Son; the Holy Spirit flies determinedly into God the Father’s cloak; the letters in the words of the collage drip, almost unreadable, and flecks of color are flung about the collage like small pieces of glass from a broken kaleidoscope. My family and neighbors scraped together what little they could from their jobs as truck drivers, steel workers, teachers and stockyard butchers to build that modern church of which they were so proud. I caught that pride, though I always sat in my pew during those funeral masses and, in my mind’s eye, tried to neaten up that collage. My family members’ coffins rested under the dome of that collage.
Afterwards, we drove to Holy Sepulcher Cemetery. We said prayers, shed tears and sang, “Danny Boy” by the gaping cavity of the grave.
This is how my parents buried their parents and how I buried mine. In a world where few things are certain, I knew how I’d be treated after I die. Of course, so much has changed since I was that child. The traditions have faded and so many family members now live on opposite sides of the country instead of blocks away from me. I can forget just how comforting and stabilizing our cultural traditions can be. And I can forget how central they still are to newer U.S. immigrants who are more closely connected to their countries of origin.
This St. Patrick’s Day I hope that whatever traditions you hail from that they give you solace and that you, too, learned that a strong and fond farewell is as important as all our hellos.
And I’m hoping that whenever any of us are tempted to judge other’s cultural traditions we remember that, in this perplexing world, the elders have passed down their cultural comfort as best they could as a way to protect and nurture the next generations. Even though I no longer live in the center of my Irish American family and neighborhood, still, even the memory of those traditions sustains me.
Sue O’Halloran is a diversity consultant working for more inclusive schools, businesses and faith-based organizations. CHICAGO AREA FOLKS – See Sue perform Irish stories & songs with singer, Megon McDonough, at Skokie Theater, March 17, 2017 at 8 pm.