'Mourners were spread out to every corner of the graveyard'

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'Mourners were spread out to every corner of the graveyard'
'Mourners were spread out to every corner of the graveyard'

‘On the darkest of nights, that’s when you see the most stars.” This is how Sarah Cassidy, whose father was buried last week, describes her community’s response to her family’s grief.

When Willie Gallagher (95) passed away after a short illness, his family was distraught. This man, a giant in their lives and a stalwart in his community of Gweedore in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht, was gone from them.

Not only had his wife Kathleen and his five children to deal with the loss of their husband and father but they also had to grapple with the restrictions around funerals as a result of Covid-19.

The new rules are an additional ordeal that bereaved families across the country find themselves dealing with even as they try to say farewell to their loved ones.

In a place as tightly knit as Gweedore, where the ancient rites of death and the importance of the wake at the centre of it are closely observed, staying apart would be a challenge. The family were thrust into dealing with their very private grief which coincided with the largest social shutdown the world has ever seen.

“He was a huge figure in the local area. He’d spent a lot of time in the US and he had friends all over the place. He was very rooted in the area and his friendships meant so much to him. He had a lot of friends of all ages and he was great for visiting and telling stories,” Sarah says of her dad.

And even though the traditional large wake with friends and neighbours calling from far and wide could not be observed, Sarah says the whole family felt their community carried them through it all.

At the wake in the family’s hotel, Teach Mhicí in Derrybeg, people gathered outside, keeping their distance, dropping flowers at the door and leaving.

Sarah recalls one of the most poignant scenes that stays in her mind when her aunt Bríd, her mother’s sister arrived. “She came to the door and my mother Kathleen and Bríd cried together from a distance.” Sarah observed the same ritual with her own best friend, together yet apart, grieving deeply together.

But what Sarah says she will never forget is the way her community came together on the day of her father’s funeral.

When the family left the church bringing their father on his final journey, Sarah says people from the parish had gathered a good distance apart taking up every corner of the graveyard. She describes it as like witnessing a sea of angels and the most comforting thing she had ever seen.

“The physical distance that people adhered to… they had spread out to every corner of the graveyard which is on a hill overlooking the sea. It was the most beautiful scene,” she says. “People went even further just to be there even though they couldn’t come close. I have never felt as close to people in my own area as I did that morning.”

The restrictions on travel meant that Sarah’s brother Colm couldn’t make it home from San Francisco for the funeral. But the family were touched when a local production company got in touch to say they would record proceedings which were broadcast on the funeral director’s Facebook page.

While it’s very early days for them all in terms of grieving, Sarah says she feels great comfort from people even though they might not be able to call and see her. “I’m suffering for my dad. It feels like the whole world is suffering and death is a global theme. It’s like the whole world is in mourning,” she says.

According to Donegal-based funeral director Colm Gillespie, people are very concerned about what the new arrangements for funerals will mean for grieving families. The undertaker, based in Gweedore, says the norm in the area is for people to attend a wake at the home of the deceased and express their condolences in person.

He says it’s not unusual for the parish church to be packed to capacity with hundreds of people for a funeral so the new arrangements will be a complete change to the norm.

HSE guidelines announced earlier this month advised that funerals should be held privately with only family and close friends present, with social distancing being maintained at all times with no handshaking or hugging.

The guidelines stated that there should be no public advertisement of funeral arrangements, in print or online, but death notices can be placed without arrangements. Families can advise friends and relations privately of funeral arrangements.

There should be no condolence book at the funeral and public reposing must be discouraged, as should funeral home gatherings.

Close family members of people who die from coronavirus will be allowed to attend their funerals, but only under strictly controlled conditions.

Families will be able to say goodbye to their loved ones in the coffin but will not be allowed to kiss the deceased.

The guidelines state that the deceased should be brought from the healthcare facility to the designated funeral home or the church where the service will be held.

Despite the restrictions, Mr Gillespie says people are finding ways to express their grief, with more people sending cards or letters to the bereaved family or using RIP.ie to express their condolences.

“I’m sure people will be coming up to the bereaved in the months to come because they didn’t get to see them at the time,” he says.

Funeral directors will also find new ways to help in the changed circumstances.

In the past 10 days, Mr Gillespie has had two funerals. At the funeral of Willie Gallagher, the production company filmed the funeral and it was broadcast live on Mr Gillespie’s Facebook page so absent family members and friends could watch. In the second case, he filmed proceedings using his mobile phone on a tripod so anyone who wanted to be there, but could not, could view the funeral.

“When someone dies, the family’s concern is with their loved-one. Covid-19 is an added burden. The situation is changing all the time and we don’t know what’s ahead. When the time comes, we can only try to comfort the family as best we can,” he says.

Orla Keegan, head of education and bereavement at the Irish Hospice Foundation, says while death is always difficult, people’s hearts are going out to the bereaved at this time.

She says people will look at other ways of reaching out to people even though they cannot physically be present. While attending wakes allows people to talk about the deceased person and share stories with their loved ones, Ms Keegan says it’s still important to make that contribution even though it can’t be done face to face.

Irish Independent

Source: Irish