One of the country’s leading funeral directors started to embalm bodies in the 1970s because modern medicine was causing remains to decompose at a much faster rate.
David McGowan, of McGowan’s Funeral Home in Ballina, in Mayo, made the revelation in a deeply moving, one-off documentary about his life’s work.
It looks into the behind-the-scenes procedures, science, and etiquette of the sombre business of preparing people for their final journey.
McGowan remembers the moment his business changed drastically, in the ’70s, when a shocked church sacristan burst in the door of his family’s country pub, which doubled as an undertaking business.
“I’ll never forget the expression on her face. She said, ‘There is noise coming from the (coffin) and it sounds to me as if it is cracking and there is water coming from the coffin’.
“I could see the blood going out of my (father’s) face… coffins cracking, coffins leaking.
“So, we decided to ring a few big funeral directors around and the word that came back from them was you need to get the body embalmed.
“That was the ’70s. That was when we started noticing a change in the deceased. The decomposition process that we normally wouldn’t see for three to four days was happening now three to four hours after death.
“From my experience, it would be from the introduction of modern medication,” McGowan said.
He went to Chicago to learn the trade of embalming at the Cook County Morgue, one of the world’s busiest mortuaries.
He recalls the daily workload of murder victims, unclaimed corpses, and overdosed high school kids.
“I had never heard of unclaimed bodies. I had come from a culture that couldn’t wait to get your body home. Now, I see them stored up in a warehouse and nobody wants to claim them,” he said.
He returned home, where the rituals around death and grieving are often said to be done better than anywhere else in the world.
“I used to read books that psychologists used to write, and they’d always mention the Irish wake, all over the world, but there was kind of more a skit made of it more than anything, a big drinking party.
“Now, I’m glad to see the psychologists writing, ‘why do the Irish grieve better than anyone else in the world’?”
McGowan summed up Irish grieving in a presentation in New Jersey. He showed a picture of the hearse surrounded by 300 people on the way to the church in Sligo.
“They were confused as to why all the people were around the hearse. I said, ‘that person isn’t going to church on their own’,” McGowan said.