As her daughter’s small, white coffin was carried carefully between the rising limestone walls into The Island Crematorium in Cork Harbour, Rebecca Saunders felt like things had finally come full circle.
Although Ms Saunders had not planned a second funeral for her three-year-old daughter, Clarissa, who was killed by her father in 2013, the small ceremony had that effect.
Clarissa was drowned by her father Martin McCarthy, 50, who then took his own life, on Audley Cove, a beach below their home in West Cork in a tragic murder-suicide.
In a haze of shock and grief, Ms Saunders had allowed Clarissa to be buried in her father’s arms just days after the killing. But once the coffin closed, she regretted that decision. Just last week, after years of hoping and 14 months of active campaigning, Clarissa was exhumed and separated from her father.
On Tuesday, Clarissa’s “last tangible remains on Earth” were brought from Schull to The Island Crematorium in Ringaskiddy.
“Bringing her from her own specific coffin into the beautiful room in the crematorium and seeing her white little coffin there and the nameplate on the white coffin…her little body being by herself in her own coffin, there were a lot of emotions. And I felt that was the way it should have been done the first time,” Ms Saunders said.
“I didn’t want it to be a second funeral but that was the moment where I had the feeling of everything coming full circle and just that she was having her moment by herself.
“It was just a release to finally see her have that, after nine years of thinking ‘this could never happen’ and then months of actively trying to make it happen and hoping everything goes well. And really not believing that we have come so far and we can finally bring her home.
“There was a lot of emotional release and crying on that day and I had some wonderful people around me to support me, who have been helping me along this path, this fight to bring her home.”
Ms Saunders said that finally having her daughter’s remains removed from the same coffin as her father, the man who killed her, has given her peace.
“Even in the last 24 hours, it feels like she’s nearer to me,” she said.
“I think it will bring more of her presence into our lives in a positive way.”
Ms Saunders said that her tragic experience has taught her to reach out and ask for help.
“I just needed to ask for help. Then I was given such open arms of love.
“I feel like I can move mountains because I can take her home,” she said.
Ms Saunders said that the public’s kindness and generosity made this journey possible.
After going public with her story, she was contacted by a woman who was also having a child exhumed who assured her that it could be quite a straightforward process.
A fundraiser on GoFundMe then raised almost US$56,000 (approx €52,000) and made the exhumation possible, she said. Of that money, €10,000 has also been donated to two Cork charities — Edel House, a domestic abuse refuge, and the neonatal unit in Cork University Maternity Hospital.
“It was a lot more expensive than I thought it would be but hopefully the money from Clarissa’s Cause will be able to cover it.
“People who did not know my name, who never met Clarissa, helped me. I would never have been able to do this without those many, many people. Having their love, their support, their financial support behind me, their emotional support, has helped me to finally be able to bring her home.
“Because of the overwhelming reception I got from all over Ireland and the UK and US, I was then able to start carrying out this plan. I applied to the county council and was met with some roadblocks. But I was helped by some people in the council and certain public representatives who helped me get on the right track.”
The exhumation last week in Schull graveyard was a nerve-wracking but ultimately very positive experience, Ms Saunders said.
She was at the West Cork graveyard at dawn last Friday as the fragile coffin containing her daughter and late husband’s remains were taken from their grave.
The two bodies, intertwined for all these years, were taken by hearse to Clonakilty and were then, finally, separated.
“Especially with waiting for the coffin to be taken out of the ground again, it reminded me of waiting for her as we tried to look for her that awful night [in the hours before her body was found in the sea], so much so that I was shaking. But it was such a relief when they finally had the coffin up.
“It was 14 months of working with Cork County Council and trying to get them satisfied enough with our method of exhuming her and separating her to then take her home again.
“Work started at about 3.45am. I was able to walk up to the graveyard. Gentlemen were already putting up fencing and tarps at 3.50am.
“Once our team had gotten into place, we were then able to start digging, everything was done by hand. My team did an amazing job of being professional and extremely careful and respectful.
“Members of the HSE and Cork County Council were there. We had wonderful help from An Garda Síochána.
“It took about three hours of the gentlemen digging by hand to bring the coffin up. The coffin was slightly concaved in due to soil and water. There was a barrier up the whole time so you couldn’t see anything but it was nerve-wracking down there because a number of variables could have gone wrong. But thankfully they took the time and once they had a purchase on the coffin, they were able to place the coffin into a shell coffin and bring that to the facility that was used to separate Clarissa.
“Once the anthropologist went through his steps of identifying Clarissa, he then just carefully separated her and put her in her own coffin.”
A plaque to commemorate Clarissa has been laid this week at Audley Cove, the place she loved most to play and where she was tragically killed.
The little ceramic angels and flowers that adorned her grave were to be placed by that plaque.
“Even though that’s where she passed, she still loved that place and I want there to be a memorial to her here,” Ms Saunders said.
Now that Ms Saunders can finally bring her daughter home with her to the US, she does not envision returning to West Cork unless her two young daughters want to visit in the future.
“I certainly have many friends here who have helped me tremendously along this path and who I love but I think that there’s too much of a negative history here for me to come back.
“If my little girls want to come when they get older, I would love to show them where their sister grew up. But, at least for the time being, I don’t think I’m going to come back to West Cork.”