At 9 am this morning, I got a note from a neighbour telling me that Vera from across the road had died suddenly and the funeral was at 10 am. So at 10 am, I was at a funeral mass with several hundred others, in my best sober shirt and tie.
I’d known Vera distantly for 15 years and spoken to her (weather only) maybe a dozen times. She seemed a perfectly nice person, with a passion for her front garden, but I never got to know her in any but the most superficial way.
So why did I drop everything at twenty minutes notice and hare off to her funeral? Because in Ireland a funeral trumps everything.
The country still operates in a forest of mutual obligations, of favours given, owed and received – the “round” system, which notoriously forces everyone in a group in an Irish pub to buy a drink for everyone else, is only the most egregious example. And funerals are probably the most important mutual obligation of all.
“I’ll go to your funeral if you come to mine”? A bit too Irish. No, the duty is to the survivors, the extended family and friends, other neighbours, the entire network of connections that allows us to recognise each other: kin, in the very broadest sense. Being there certainly conveys solidarity with the bereaved, but it also reconfirms membership in that broader group for everyone who attends.
One result is that records of funerals are uniquely important in Ireland. Visitors can be bewildered at the half-hour-long lists of deaths and funeral arrangements that constitute prime-time broadcasting on local radio. One of the most visited Irish websites is rip.ie, providing a country-wide database of funerals. Newspapers still have full pages of “the deaths”.
And all of these include lists of immediate family, in-laws and grandchildren, with addresses, cemeteries, places of origin … everything needed for family history. When I looked up Vera’s death notice on rip.ie after coming home from the funeral, I found out more about her than in the fifteen years of being her neighbour.