Alison O’Connor: Re-engineering society needed to adjust to pandemic living and dying

Covid-19 has had a dramatic effect on how we respect, mourn, and bury our dead. As Irish people that seems especially hard, writes Alison O'Connor

Alison O’Connor: Re-engineering society needed to adjust to pandemic living and dying
Grass grows through the pavement during the coronavirus lockdown on what would normally be a bustling Grafton St in Dublin. Picture: Leon Farrell/

It was a feeling of being bereft. I could still hear the strains of “Nearer my God to Thee”, but staring at a now still screen, I was having to imagine the coffin continuing down the aisle and emerging into the daylight. Seconds earlier I had seen my cousins stand up and leave their pews to follow.

Funerals are sad occasions. Sadder still to be sitting in your home office observing a family one electronically because you are not allowed to attend, to show your respect and offer support to your relatives. 

The sadness was for them, for myself, and for my uncle, whose obsequies, in ordinary circumstances, I would have attended personally.

After the cortege had disappeared from view, leaving an empty altar, it was easy enough to imagine what could not be seen at that point. We had gathered previously in that large Dublin Northside Church for the funeral masses of my aunt, my mother’s older sister, and a few years later for their son, my first cousin. 

On Wednesday it was for the funeral of my uncle, her husband, who had died suddenly on Sunday, at home, at the age of 94.

In the absence of being there in person it really was a comfort to be able to watch it online; to pay respects to this man who had been an exceptionally devout Catholic.

 For him, you imagined, the key part - in these pandemic times - would be a funeral mass, and that his immediate family would be allowed to be in attendance.

The camera was trained on the altar. It was a relief to realise that music was allowed. It was a beautiful singer with a harp accompanying, adding somewhat to a sense of this being a normal funeral service. 

But there was an acute loneliness in only seeing your cousins from behind. Different families sat separately, faces were seen, but not with any definition, only when they went to the altar to do a reading or a prayer or a eulogy.

On Wednesday the coffin sat in the traditional place in front of the altar with a floral arrangement on top and a photograph that I guessed in all likelihood would have been of my aunt and uncle, but wasn’t able to quite make it out.

During Mass the priest spoke of how he’d been told that if my uncle had not met my aunt, whom he clearly adored, he’d have become a priest. But they did meet and life took a different path. 

He had been a much loved husband, father, grandfather and quite recently, a great grandfather. We were told what we already knew, but were relieved and grateful to be able to hear it repeated from an altar, that he was an honourable, kind man, who was always interested in people’s welfare. 

He read his Bible everyday, with a particular grá for the Book of Proverbs If you turned up at his house at rosary time – it didn’t matter who you were – you said your prayers.

At the end of Mass, with that traditional funeral hymn being sung, the priest descended from the altar, and along with the coffin disappeared from the shot, as did the tiny number of people in attendance, in accordance with official guidelines. 

Tiny numbers are not something you usually associate with my mother’s family - especially for an occasion such as this - given that there were originally ten siblings and from them oodles of first cousins. 

Alison O’Connor: Re-engineering society needed to adjust to pandemic living and dying
Cleaners & Members of the public with who recieved takeaway lunch from the Capuchin Day Centre all observing Social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic in the pews at the St Mary of the Angels Church Dublin.
Photo:Gareth Chaney/Collins

We’d have been there afterwards in the churchyard, swapping hugs and sympathy, chatting and catching up, travelling to the graveyard, and then on to somewhere for lunch where we would have swapped family stories and memories of my uncle, and my aunt, and all the other siblings. 

We would have laughed and been sad, and, I hope, have provided some comfort and memories to my cousins on their loss.

Covid19 has had a dramatic effect on how we respect, mourn and bury our dead. As Irish people that seems especially difficult. But this is life now and we have no choice but to accept it. 

Further evidence of all that has changed came last Sunday. After the news of my uncle’s death, trying to lift the mood, I suggested we take advantage of the extension of our boundary limitations from 2km to 5km by taking a trip from home to Grafton St.

I was curious to see what the capital’s main pedestrianised shopping street was like in lockdown. All in all it was a depressing, ghost town experience. 

Usually at that time on a Sunday afternoon there would be a bustling crowd with shoppers making their way in and out of stores; window shoppers slowly strolling up or down. But as we walked down towards College Green it was on a near empty street, with the vast majority of doors closed.

 Fewer places were boarded up than I had imagined, having seen some of those in photographs previously. Taped to shop windows were the Covid 19 signs that had been placed there almost two months ago when the businesses were originally shut.

I suppose in our home environments, and within our original 2km, we had gotten somehow used to the “new normal”. 

Seeing and experiencing it elsewhere – whether it be an emotional occasion such as experiencing a funeral online, or a walk down a shopping street that may not return to it’s usual hustle and bustle for a long time to come – those require further adaptation. After all we have had to make changes we never even imagined.

Alison O’Connor: Re-engineering society needed to adjust to pandemic living and dying
Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health, and Dr Ronan Glynn, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health, pictured this evening -Wednesday 13th May- at a Covid -19 update press conference at the Department of Health. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Towards the end of the NPHET briefing on Tuesday evening, emphasising how we’re in this for the long term, Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan spoke about these ways in which we will have to “learn to live with” Covid 19, until a vaccine became available. 

Even when that (hopefully) happens every country in the world will be looking for it, and high priority groups will have to receive it first.

Dr Holohan spoke of how we are “going to have to be good at” re-engineering society and workplaces and social environments in order to be able to reintroduce activities, always with the threat of the virus re emerging. 

There are times that you feel overwhelmed with all of this; trying to adjust to pandemic living and dying.

Of late, what I have noticed, is that my patience is ever shortening with our politicians, whether they’re failing to form a Government, or setting up utterly daft and unrealistic notions amongst the population of what a Government might be able to do with a wrecked Covid economy. 

Elsewhere they’re beating their breasts about how, at a newly established Dail Committee, they’re going to “grill” people who’ve spent day and night over recent months trying to keep us all safe, are still attempting to do so, and will be doing so for quite some time to come. 

While everyone else is having to adjust to new realities they are looking increasingly in need of a reality pill.

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