This is an article I had published in the Kerryman in 2009
I took a very grown-up step last year, I bought a house. Now don’t immediately switch off, just because I have mentioned property buying in the middle of a property crash, this is not about the epic financial crisis that our country is experiencing. This is a very uplifting discussion about funerals. Really! What do buying houses and funerals have in common and more importantly how can this be uplifting? Well, put simply, I now have an excuse to write a Will.
Healthy thirty-something year olds don’t usually have any reason to write Wills. It is one of the many advantages of being young and healthy. What I had not realised however, was that despite the eye watering length of my mortgage, the Life Assurance Policy I was obliged to take out, will pay whatever balance is left on my mortgagee, if I die prematurely.
So I find myself in the unexpected position of having an estate to distribute after I die. Of course my first wish would be to take everything with me in a Viking style funeral, but we are all environmentalists now, so I cannot be so irresponsible. I have to therefore sit down and write out what I want done with my possessions, who gets what, who is in charge of the process and how I want my body disposed of. I also get to pay a solicitor to make sure all this happens according to my instructions.
When I mentioned writing a Will to those close to me, I found them staring at me, searching for some hidden signs of terminal ill-health. They did not share my enthusiasm for controlling things from beyond the grave which is what a Will really is. Whether one believes in an afterlife or not, a Will is an exercise in extreme vanity. By signing a piece of paper, one gets to distribute property and listen to particular types of music, even though one is dead. How can one not be attracted to such power? A power I certainly don’t get to exercise while alive.
In writing a Will one must choose a solicitor and one must decide who gets what. That is the easy part of the process. After this it gets tricky. One must decide on an Executor. This is kind of like deciding on a Best Man or a God Parent. Except that liking the person is optional, one can dislike the Executor and prove this by leaving them nothing other than the unpleasant task of fulfilling one’s wishes.
Though in truth, picking a trusted friend is the best option. Again like a God Parent, the nominated person should first be asked. And when you have convinced them of your continuing good health and they are no longer angry at being given a fright, one has to make clear to them one’s specific wishes for how the immediate aftermath of one’s death is handled. It is a heavy responsibility, having to deal with one’s grief for a lost friend or relative and still having to attend to the details of that person’s particular wishes. So some pre-death planning should be done.
Fortunately, humanity has ritualised death to such a degree that in most cases one can go through the practicalities of losing a loved one on autopilot. A good undertaker will understand this and will quietly take almost all the pressure off the grief stricken, by simply doing their job. The process from the very moment of death up to the actual burial will happen almost as if by magic, because that is what a good Funeral Director can do.
Problems can arise however in a situation where one is not a traditionalist. If one wishes to alter one aspect of what is the usual process of burial, then that is where a Will, a well-informed Executor and an excellent Funeral Director become even more important. This only became apparent to me a few months ago. An elderly lady in Donegal died and as she was non-religious, her son ended up having to bury her in Derry.
It can be argued that this was a pointless thing for her son to do; he could have just given her a Catholic funeral and not worry about her wishes. Everyday people who live non-religious lives and lifestyles attend Catholic Churches for ceremonies, because Churches are where ceremonies are conducted. Even the Priests are aware of this ongoing pretence.
Respect for the dead however is something we take very seriously in this country. We are all keen to speak well of someone who has died and to ensure that their funeral is a picture of solemn reverence. So we must decide which is more important, a respect for tradition or our respect for the dead. Not an easy question. But a Will, with clear instructions will allow the Executor and the Funeral Director the opportunity, at least, to fulfil the wishes of the deceased.
I certainly don’t want to end up like that Donegal woman and have my friends and family traveling the country, with my coffin, looking for an unconsecrated hole in the ground. Thankfully however that won’t happen. There are 139 cemeteries in Kerry owned by the Council. So even the dead non-religious have rights in Kerry. But what of our need of ritual?
This thankfully can also be satisfied. Funeral homes, Community Centres or other public buildings will accommodate those who wish to attend the Memorial Service. And perhaps more importantly, one can also get someone to direct proceedings. An organisation called the Humanist Association of Ireland has trained personnel, who conduct Naming Day Ceremonies, Marriages and Funerals. Our need to do things the same as we have always done is still possible. It can look the same and even more importantly feel the same, but it doesn’t have to be the same.
The very last thing we will get to have any control over is our Funeral. Planning for it is not a bad thing.