Hands Like Shovels
Travel Stories: Jessica Colley had attended family funerals back in the States, but none had prepared her for her first Irish burial
12.31.13 | 10:21 PM ET
I thought it was over when he picked up a shovel. First he took off his black suit jacket, loosened his tie and rolled up starched white sleeves. A light mist—what the Irish call a “soft day”—had dampened the fresh mound of earth. I thought this funeral was over, but in fact, the family was now going to bury their dead.
One spade-full at a time, dense black soil filled the grave. The first slap of dirt on the wood coffin brought new fits of tears. As the pace quickened, women struggled to hold umbrellas as they reached for tissues. Each man—a cousin or uncle or brother—took off his jacket and took over a shovel to contribute.
Over 20 silent minutes, my thoughts drifted to a string of recent family funerals back home in the States. After a graveside Catholic service, we left the polished coffin surrounded by flowers. Long after someone else patted the dirt down smooth we returned to freshly grown grass and a shiny headstone. Attending this funeral in the Gaeltacht—the Irish-speaking area of Ireland—wasn’t a requirement. I didn’t know the deceased personally, only that he was the first cousin of an Irish family I wasn’t yet legally tied to. After surviving my own family’s dark funeral season, I wanted to see how another culture mourned their dead, how tradition helped people to celebrate life.
The journey began in Dublin, my adopted hometown, with a question: What does one wear to an Irish funeral? As I stood in front of the wardrobe, my partner—with his clear Irish blue eyes—reminded me that the funeral was still a day away, and I would be dressing for the wake. In fear of standing out as the overdressed American, I threw on something modest but casual. High neckline. Neutral colors. For the funeral, a safe, simple black dress. Soon Dublin was in the rear view mirror as we sped west, crossing the country toward Galway and craggy Connemara.
I sensed we were close as Peter turned the talk radio down and our surroundings began to trigger childhood memories. “Even as kids,” Peter said, “my cousins always had hands like shovels, tough hands for climbing over rocks or defending each other in a scrap.”
As I listened to his stories, my eyes darted up and down the road for the first sign of a funeral home, for a big black hearse, or the family dressed in all black. When the car stopped, we were in a pleasant neighborhood. Children with muddy knees played with an inflated ball in a front lawn. Fathers sipped bottles of beer while keeping watch. The period of mourning began in the family home, with the coffin in the living room.
“You mean to tell me,” I wondered aloud, “that his mother has to sleep tonight knowing that her son’s dead body is in the living room downstairs?” I tied my coat tighter around my waist.
With a reassuring hand on my back, Peter guided me toward the door. “Let’s go in. We’re late.”
Women gathered in the kitchen greeting new arrivals. Just as in my Italian-American family, people brought gifts of food, although no one wanted to eat. Hands stayed busy preparing steaming cups of milky Irish tea, offering thin sandwiches on crumbly brown bread.
I met cousins with Peter’s same clear blue eyes, and I shook large, calloused hands. When the conversation shifted into Irish, I admired photos hung on walls of the wild landscape. I smiled, and then regretted smiling, at the son of the deceased. Everyone took a turn telling the story of the last time they’d talked to him, or received a letter from him, or of summer holiday plans that would never be realized.
Back in the car, I spoke first. “The cousins all looked tired. They must not be getting much sleep.”
“They dug the grave this morning,” my partner replied, turning the ignition in the cold car. “The first few inches were probably soft, but after that, I’m sure it was hard work.”
I didn’t sleep much that night in a silent inn outside Galway. I couldn’t stop thinking that there was a mother nearby trying to sleep, wishing her boy downstairs was sleeping, too.
At the church in a village outside Galway, accents were as thick as low-lying clouds. I had driven through Connemara on happier occasions—admiring the endless hues of green and shimmering lakes—but today the land seemed desolate and unforgiving. We parked behind a long line of cars and approached the church with soft road underfoot.
The service was half in Irish. Every now and again the priest would slip into English, commanding my attention back to the meaning of the words instead of their unfamiliar sound. A procession led the way from the church to the graveyard, a long and slow journey on winding country roads. We passed grazing sheep and stone fences, the village where trucks bore the family name, the cove where the deceased had collected seaweed off the rocks at low tide.
My family graveyard is full of methodical rows of headstones, everything painfully straight and organized. This graveyard was too old for such organization. Family gathered around the freshly dug grave. Women shifted their weight from one foot to the other, trying not to let high heels sink in the grass.
No one left until the body was buried. Women held suit jackets and men took turns with a shovel. Each mopped his brow before tapping a family member on the back to take a turn. From my position a few rows back, a few cultures removed, and a few thousand miles from home, I couldn’t help but think that this family was closer to the burial than I had ever been. This was their son, brother, cousin, or father, and they were going to lay him to rest.