Saturday, November 26, 2016


This book is a heap of fun. Death can be fun, or at least there can be some funny aspects to it, as long as its not your own death you're talking about.

This book has over seventy contributors, each covering a different aspect of death in about three pages. The only significantly longer contribution is the introduction by the editor, Salvador Ryan, and that runs to a whole seven pages. So it's lots of stuff but short and snappy.

Salvador Ryan, editor, Nick Maxweell MD Wordwell,
Peter Harbison, archeologist

I'll just reflect on two points from Salvador's introductory talk at the launch in the Royal Irish Academy on 10/11/2016. The talk was serious, funny and highly entertaining. Make you want to buy the book, which, incidentally I did.

The first concerns children and the presence of death. Today, for many people, death is sanitised. We are often far from the old country wake where the corpse is in a bed or open coffin while neighbours, friends and colleagues "party" around it.

I have been with many corpses, from my granny when I was a teenager, to my cousin very recently, and I have not been in the least scared in the presence of the dead. Upset maybe but not scared. It is much more scary to be in the presence of a person dying a slow death and fighting valliantly for every last breath.

The second is the caoineadh or to give it its weak Englsh translation the Lament. It is really a mourning or a keening usually by the family but also sometimes by a "professional" brought in from the outside. We had a taste of it at the launch when Salvador sang an unaccompanied caoineadh as Gaeilge in the course of his talk.

Some of the items in the book may seem a bit obscure and peripheral but I went straight to Rita Larkin's piece on death notices and Mary Ann Bolger's on Memorial Cards (or Memoriam Cards as we used to call them).

Rita's piece is a hoot where she systematically debunks and interprets the PC language used in your standard death notice. The notice is a "best foot forward" job regardless of the facts - nisi bonum and all that. People don't die any more. They "pass on" and the like, and often as not it's "after an illness bravely borne" even if they died roarin'. Then there's the mammy who used always keep an eye on the death notices in the paper - "do you know who's dead?". It's a sad day, and a wakeup call, when this duty passes down to yourself. Anyway, Rita has the ultimate way around the bullshit in the death notice - write your own, well in advance!

Mary Ann's piece also rang lots of bells. More than you might imagine. Both my Granny's and my Mammy's missals were chock-a-block with memoriam cards. And most of the subjects would be regularly prayed for in the course of the weekly, or daily, mass, as the case may be. Lost friends, colleagues and relations all vied for attention. Some had photos and some didn't.

Mary Ann recounts how holy pictures, of varying degrees of piety and suffering, but blank on the obverse, would be obtained by jobbing printers, and turned into highly personalised memorial cards. I am well aware of the process as I too was a jobbing printer once, albeit on a very small scale, and I specialised, inter alia, in the memorial card. Mary Ann mentions indulgences but I don't think she quite gets it as far as the letterpress printer is concerned. Every letter and space had to be set by hand with a tweezers so the less the work and the greater the reward the better. Taking a leaf out of the book of my betters, the older indulgence hunters, I scoured the table of indulgences to find the shortest ejaculation with the biggest bang (so to speak). Worked like a dream.

The choice and range of pieces in the book reflect the evolution of today's Irish society. We have a piece on the Jewish way of death, which while not particularly modern might not have been included in such a book way back. But we also have a piece on the Muslim way of death which certainly reflects the replacement of the kosher by the hallal in some traditionally Jewish areas in Dublin.

The contrast between the funerals of two Irish Presidents, Douglas Hyde and Erskine Childers, tells us much about the progress of human decency and the decline of the influence of the Catholic church in the intervening period.

Well, if you can't have the State Pathologist to launch your book on death you can have a former State Pathologist's brother. This incidental observation, of course, does a serious injustice to Peter Harbison, who is widely renowned in his own right, and appropriately enough to the subject, the field of archeology. I wouldn't have mentioned the brother but he brought it up himself in the course of his witty romp through the contents of the book.

He commented that he was glad he was launching and not reviewing the book where he'd have to comment on all 75 entries. At the launch he just picked out a few teasers, including two cases which called for some ingenuity in repatriating the corpse where the sailors were reluctant, to say the least, to have a dead person on board ship. One was shipped in a full barrell of gin where the gin "evaporated" during the voyage, and the other in a stand up piano, in which he was eventually buried.

I must say that the more I got to read of this book the more I liked it. It is an Aladdin's Cave, an absolute treasure trove of the most interesting of stuff.

Unlike Peter Harbison I could go on all day and night talking about this book and drawing attention to its tightly phrased informative, interesting, amusing and entertaining contributions. But you'd be better off going out and buying the book yourself and leaving it around to pick up and dip into from time to time. That is, if you can leave it down once you've picked it up.

So I'll just mention two more pieces.

David J Butler writes on the momento mori and the Freemasons. I was in the graveyard at Greyfriars in Edinburgh recently and came to the conclusion that it must be full of deceased pirates, if one is to judge by the proliferation of skull and crossbones on the tombstones. My guide explained that they were all Freemasons, a matter of no surprise to him as in them days you had to be a Freemason to get anywhere. And believe you me, these tombstones were not purchased in the local bargain basement. Massive, some of them were.

Clodagh Tait, in her piece on Graveyard Folklore tells us that the inhabitants of graveyards are usually depicted in being proactive in defending their graves from interference. This brought to mind the curse of the Guinnesses in their vault in All Saints Church just down the road from where I live. You can see it for yourself below. Click the image for a larger readable version.

Happy reading.

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