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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

To Fill or Not To Fill

The practice of not back-filling the grave until the mourners have departed is something I disagree with because, I feel, it lacks finality but that is only my opinion. In my young days, at funerals, as soon as the coffin was lowered, “Blessed-clay” was produced from a sugar-bag and sprinkled on the coffin in the sign of the Cross, the Priest, at the graveside started with “Thou Lord will open my lips . . “ On cue a number of the deceased’s neighbours would each take a shovel and respectfully fill in the clay in on the coffin. By the recitation of the Hail Holy Queen the resulting mound would have been covered by sods which had been skinned from a neighbouring field in advance. A few expert claps with the back of a shovel resulted in a smooth grassy elevation and Mother Nature would do the rest. The mourners would depart having seen the last of their loved one. There was a sad finality about the scene but it was finality.

(Phillipe Aries in Western attitudes to Death said, “ . . . the dead person should be installed in a sort of house unto himself, a house of which he was the perpetual owner, or at least long-term tenant, a house in which he would be at home, and from which he could not be evicted.”)

The burying of the dead is a primitive instinct. Some of the more intelligent species bury their dead. Chimpanzees, elephants, and ants have been known to bury their dead. Some ants will bury any dead ants they encounter, whether of their own or another ant species.

Not everybody agrees with me but Thomas Lynch celebrated poet-undertaker, who wrote in the New York Times, “ . . .the presence of the dead at their own funerals has become strangely unfashionable.” says, “I'm in entire agreement with you. Your instincts and articulation of them are spot on. In West Clare the grave is backfilled by family and neighbors and it is a high honor to have the shovel passed to you and be part of the holy job. As is, indeed, being part of the company of local men who open the grave the day before, collect the bones of the longer dead and rebury them in a corner of the new grave. These are "corporal" works of mercy because they involve the bodies of the dead, and the bodies of the living. There is no way to phone it in or farm it out.”

Another undertaker told me,“We simply comply with the wishes of the priest, as he is ever the only person to direct us either way.”

Psychologically, those who walk away from an open grave must have a sense of unfinished business. Current protocol dictates that everything must be done in as hurry; we live in an instant world. As poet/writer Michael Gallagher says, “Only the bare decade nowadays and even that seems to go on forever. The grave diggers are on a Fás course and must get back. And didn't the hotel say strictly half twelve for the sandwiches!”

Psychologists and the US funeral industry, claim that by interring a body away from plain view, the pain of losing a loved one can be lessened. Watching the clods of earth bouncing on the lid of the coffin of the one they love may be temporary distressing for some people. However, Colin McAteer of Woodbrook Natural Burial Ground told me, “On a number of funerals that I attended at Woodbrook a few people came over to me when the men started to back-fill the grave telling me that they did not think that it was appropriate – all without exception came back up to me afterwards saying that it was the right thing to do and that it gave a certain finality or ending point to the funeral and the life of the deceased.” Colin went on to say, “I personally think it is the right thing to do – I also believe that insurance laws should be changed to allow people to help. If you choose to pick up a shovel to help back fill the grave the graveyard operator should be free of blame if you pull a muscle or something like that. At a time of a funeral people want to help – they don’t want to stand around with their two arms the one length - it gives people a sense that they have helped a friend in need or that they have done one last thing for the deceased. To me it does help a little with the grieving process and should be encouraged.”

If it is the desire of the deceased or the relatives to postpone the back-filling that is OK but when they are bound by regulations which remove that choice it is a different matter.

In other areas of Irish life we hear a lot about “Pro-choice” and “closure”, surely a person should have a choice in their final decision.

Local authorities are sometimes blamed for not giving the choice but not one of the County Councils that I contacted has any regulations prohibiting back-filling in the presence of the mourners. Gerry Gillen of Longford County Council says, “It would not be acceptable to many communities if the Council was to dictate how funeral services and burials are conducted... This practice has crept in as it was considered to be upsetting for family members to have to listen to the sounds of the stones and earth falling on the coffin. If it is of any use to you my experience of attending funerals in Clare has been that there are traditions which are widely upheld. Family members, neighbours and friends assist with both the digging of the grave and the backfilling of it. If a neighbour did not assist it would be taken as an insult. Even elderly people who might otherwise not do physical work make a special effort to participate as this is seen to be an acknowledgement of the regard in which the deceased person is held in the local community.”

With Town Councils, on the other hand, it appears to be a different story. Mallow Town Council has alerted all undertakers operating in Cork County of its new policy which states that, “back- filling should commence immediately after all mourners have left the cemetery and be completed fully on the same working day.”

However a spokesperson for Wexford County Council told me, “While I appreciate that this is a very sensitive issue, I would have serious concerns about volunteers/relatives being allowed to either dig or fill in graves. The employment of grave diggers is solely the responsibility of the Undertaker. As the Council has no role in their employment, they would not be covered under the Council’s Employers Liability Insurance Policy. I would not recommend allowing it unless you are sure of their competency and can provide adequate insurance cover, in case of an accident (our Insurance Company recommends Employers Liability cover of €12.7m)."

One man who had recently buried his father told me, “My opinion is that it is better to wait until the relatives have left the grave before the grave diggers do their work.”

Graham Gleasure of Brief says, “My opinion is that watching the earth fall and the grave closing does not necessarily bring any further closure to most people. I feel that the local tradition holds more sway in what the individual "expects" as to how they should feel.”

A Bandon Undertaker told me, “ In most places now, the grave is not covered until the family have departed, but if the family want to, I have no problem in allowing that to happen, . . . my own personal opinion is its very nice to see the family involved, it’s an old Irish tradition."

Am I correct in my opposition to the current trend? You decide.

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