Why an Irish funeral trumps everything

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.


A large network of mutual obligations

“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.

A twenty-five-year ‘in memoriam’ notice, published in 1972

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.



6 thoughts on “Why an Irish funeral trumps everything”

  1. The Neligan mention in your page memoriam is one of my x-removed cousins……..thanks for the heads up ..

  2. I was struck by the difference between Irish funerals and funerals in the UK while watching EastEnders yesterday (I know!). There, Peggy Mitchell’s funeral was attended mostly only by family and close neighbours/ friends. and it took place about 6 weeks after her death.

    If someone of her standing died in Ireland, every neighbour, friend, customer and their families would be there, there’d be standing room only in the church, and probably a live audio/ video feed to the community hall next door to accommodate everyone. And it’d happen 2 days after her death (maybe 3 if there were family travelling).

    And the family of the deceased would be able to say exactly who had – and more importantly – who hadn’t turned up for the funeral. That’s the kind of thing people remember in Ireland.

    It’s interesting to think about.

    1. The difference in funeral customs between here and the UK is one of the reasons the Birmingham Six were wrongly convicted in 1975. Five of them were on their way to Belfast in a hurry, to get to the funeral of a distant, common acquaintance. The West Midlands police considered this incomprehensible and deeply suspicious. And fitted them up.

  3. What a meaningful part of Irish culture. Here in the US, or at least in many parts of it, someone can be dead in their house for a week before anyone checks. Sad but true.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.