I remember my father's mother very well, though she's been dead now for well over 30 years. She was the daughter of Irish immigrants--a Monahan and a Sayles. (Sayles, I think, is actually Anglo Irish, but they were from Ballybunion way. The Monahans were from the Midlands, near Athlone.)
Gramma grew up on a farm outside of Amazonia, Missouri, and married a German man, my grandfather. They had two sons, and then a daughter; my father was the oldest. I always saw him as spending his life battling both halves of himself -- the sentimental and darkly spiritual Irish side, and the orderly and controlling German side. Both sides won.
When one of Gramma's aunts, died, my father was still a boy. He used to tell us about the day of the funeral--it was early spring, and a storm was raging, coating the trees, icing the roads, glittering and cold and dangerous. Gramma fretted; she thought the weather would keep people away. But the church was packed; Irish farmers and their wives came down from the hills in droves and filled the pews.
When the service was over, Gramma and my father stood side-by-side, greeting well-wishers and accepting their condolences. "I didn't think anyone was going to come," Gramma told one of them, and the woman laughed.
"Of course we came, Bernice," the woman said. "Nothing draws the Irish like a corpse."
There are other family stories of funerals in those days; vague stories, with no-name dead relatives laid out on a table, with Monahans and Sayleses playing their fiddles and drinking their whiskey and staying up all night keeping the corpse company. Late at night, or so the stories go, the keening began, and the weeping, and the desire to keep the dead one with them. And in the morning, when H.O. Seidenfaden, the German mortician from St. Joe, came to collect the body, the body was often gone.
The mourners had hidden it, and now they were asleep, and Seidenfaden had to commence a search: the root cellar? The garret? The outhouse? There was no telling.
I don't know if that story is true; the first one, I think, is. My father remembered it well and always told it with an ironic chuckle. But I was thinking of these tales after reading your comments of yesterday. In the old days, as many of you pointed out, death was a part of the fabric of life. It was just as sad, just as devastating as now--there is real pain behind wanting so deeply to keep a loved one that one hides the body in the coal chute, though there is comedy there, too--but it was something families experienced, and experienced together.
When my brother died, my father wanted to keep those traditions. He wanted to lay John Patrick out on the dining room table and have a real Irish wake.
My mother said absolutely not, and who can blame her? She was not Irish, and these were not her traditions, and I think she would never have been able to sit at that table again after seeing her dead son lying there. None of their friends were Irish, and there would have been no keening, no fiddles, no all-night vigils. It just would not have worked.
Part of the melting pot that we have become means pulling back from some traditions--from many traditions, really. It's hard to embrace someone else's culture, just as hard to force yours on someone else. Easier to pull back to something more antispectic and generic. I suspect that is one of the things that has happened with our attitudes toward death.
Some of you have heard these stories before, but I like telling them. I'm like an old granny, rocking back and forth, telling and retelling the same stories over and over again and then chuckling to myself. What can I say? It's the Irish in me. Or the German. Or both.
A note on the photos: My grandparents, and my father's brother and sister. Photo by my dad. Second photo: My dad at the farm.