Back then, dying was expensive business

by Cormac MacConnell

It might surprise many of you that from the age of about 14, I was regularly attending an average of three funerals weekly, representing my father.

And, even though all of those funerals were only a short bicycle ride away from home, the cumulative cost of attending them cost my dear father a small fortune on an annual basis.

The cost of dying, really, was nearly as significant as the cost of living, back then. That is another maybe surprising pure truth.

My father, you see, owned the local country shop.

He was often so busy behind the counter that myself, the oldest son, was frequently drafted in to represent him at funerals touching the families of his customers.

Always, before I departed for the chapel a couple of miles away, he would dip into the till and hand me five shillings for the offerings, which were then a crucial element of Catholic funerals, in many parishes.

The shillings were not for me. They were for the parish priest or the curate conducting the funeral service.

We grew up with that tradition which, I think, lasted until Vatican II or thereabouts.

My raft of funerals occurred in the late 1950s. I remember them well, and I hated them with a passion, because you had to wear your Sunday best on a weekday, and the funeral service, including the painfully slow offerings section, and the homily of praise for the deceased, seemed to last forever, when you were 14, and wearing a tight tie around your neck.

The way it worked was that the celebrant stood inside the altar rails flanked by altar boys at the end of the Mass and the congregation shuffled up the aisle, with their offerings for the table before him.

Each name and the amount offered was called out loudly.

Back then, immediate family members paid anything between one and five pounds, and from there, the amounts ranged downwards to five shillings, with the lowest contributions never being less than two shillings.

The majority of neighbours and friends, like my father, paid five shillings.

At the end of the ceremony, the priest would announce that the total offerings had amounted to a sum which on average ranged between £30, and £50-£60, at a time when even one pound was a significant sum.

The offerings went directly to the clergy of the parish.

Such was the tradition.

I remember hearing once that a witty priest in the next parish remarked that he was having a bad year.

He apparently nodded towards the graveyard around his chapel, and said, “There has been no sod turned there since last January!”

Accordingly, no offerings either. It was the way things were. And, inevitably in this world, there was a poignantly sad underside to the tradition.

You see, the situation was, that if I died this Thursday, and the offerings paid at my funeral amounted to £84, then a status judgement was made in the parish.

A different status judgement was made if I died the following Wednesday, and my offerings amounted to only £48. We all know that kind of thing happens, and it was especially strong in our country parishes in the 1950s.

At that time, believe it or not, many people counted the number of cars following the hearses to the graveyards and, again, if there were less cars behind your hearse than behind mine on our last journeys, then certain judgements were silently but subtly made.

One especially heartbreaking facet of the tradition of offerings bore heavily on parishioners who were maybe aging bachelors in the community, often farmers.

As they came closer to the end of their journey through life, they frequently began attending even more funerals than my father dispatched me to.

They knew that every five shillings they laid on the table before the altar would be repaid on the day of their funeral, and would boost the total of their offerings, into what would be regarded as a “respectable” sum by the silent parochial judges who interested themselves in that area. A sad truth there.

The termination of that tradition was to be welcomed.

I may be wrong, but I believe it was not just an Ulster tradition either, but was fairly widespread nationally.

I also believe that it lasted for many years after I stopped attending funerals for my father, maybe right up until Vatican II, and a new order of things.

Thank heavens it is now just a folk memory.

And, of course, remembering that witty parish priest complaining that no lucrative sods had been turned over in his graveyard for months, I have my tongue firmly lodged in my left cheek, when making no connection at all between the ending of offerings, and the current sharp drop in the number of our priests.

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