Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
— from An Irish Funeral Prayer
The first time I saw a dead body, I was seven years old. I remember it very clearly because that’s the sort of thing that sticks with you.
My Uncle Thomas had died only a few weeks after we moved from the States to Belmullet, a tiny speck of a town settled on Ireland’s Mullet Peninsula. That’s a long way to move a kid who’s spent their whole life surrounded by cornfields and McDonald’s. Feels even longer when as soon as you get there, one of their funny-speaking relatives drops dead.
Uncle Thomas was how I was introduced to my family’s tradition: the Seáin funeral wake.
See, I was just a kid, so I had no way of knowing that most Irish families stopped the whole wake thing around the ‘70s. Most of them just bury their dead like regular people but not the Seáins. We had our own way of handling death. A very specific way. And until yesterday, I thought it was normal. I thought it was okay.
God help me, I thought it was okay.
When Uncle Thomas died, my dad let me watch the tradition. He said since I had just turned seven it was my duty that I learn about my roots, my culture. He explained that tradition was why he had moved us out here and the fact that Mom didn’t understand that was why she didn’t come with us, why they had gotten a divorce. She could have her cornfields and McDonald’s and I would become a stronger, better man by growing up breathing the salty sea air of Home.
Home. He made it sound so important. Dads can do that, I guess.
I saw my first dead body when Uncle Thomas was carried down from the bed he’d died in. He wasn’t very old when he died, it was kind of weird but my dad said he just went in his sleep and it was peaceful so I shouldn’t worry about it. I did anyway, for a long time, because if you’re not safe in your sleep then how could I believe I was safe from death at all?
I expected him to look like he was sleeping but he didn’t. He looked waxy, weird, like a dummy made from the remnants of fully-burnt candles. His eyes were closed (thank God for that) but his mouth kept popping open and I could see his teeth inside. For some reason at every funeral wake after it’s what I always noticed on the body: the open mouth, the teeth inside.
Do you want to hear about the Seáin funeral wake tradition? I can tell you about Uncle Thomas’ funeral wake because I remember it in such detail, but also because they were all the same, and there were a lot.
First, my aunts and female cousins laid out the body in Grandma and Grandpa Seáin’s living room, right in front of the fireplace. It was this big, long wooden table they brought out from the cellar — we only used it for funeral wakes. To use it for anything else would’ve been disrespectful to the dead. (I just thought it would be gross to eat off a table like that but I kept my mouth shut. Besides, I’d already been told to never go into the cellar. It was a sacred place and I had to respect things that were sacred.)
Next, they washed him. I tried to cover my eyes so I wouldn’t see his private parts but my dad slapped my hands away from my eyes, saying it was important to watch the whole thing, I had to watch the whole thing. I watched and hoped they’d hurry but they took their time.
Then Uncle Thomas was shaved, dressed, and laid back down again. They crossed his arms over his chest where his heart didn’t beat and I still thought he should look like he was sleeping, but he didn’t.
Grandma Seáin, who didn’t cry once the whole time as she put her youngest son to rest, wrapped a long string of beads around his right hand and put it back on his chest. Then she sat down next to him in her favorite chair and someone brought her the first glass of whiskey while my aunts stopped all the clocks in the house. My cousins covered all the mirrors.
Grandma Seáin drank the first glass of whiskey and then everyone took a glass, the whole Seáin clan gathered in Grandma and Grandpa’s living room. Everyone took a glass, including me — it was smaller than the rest and my dad explained it was important that I participate but it was also important I didn’t tell any other adults about this part. Not that there were many to tell in the town of Belmullet; most of the population was either Seáin blood or close to it or kept to themselves. I thought this was okay, too, because I didn’t know any better.
Grandma Seáin raised her glass and the rest of them followed suit so I did the same as they all began to sing:
Of all the money that ere I had, I spent it in good company.
And of all the harm that ere I’ve done, alas was done to none but me.
And all I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I cannot recall.
So fill me to the parting glass. Goodnight and joy be with you all.
Everyone took a swig from their glass so I did the same. I almost spat it out, not knowing what to expect but definitely not expecting it to burn so badly. Then they sang the rest:
Of all the comrades that ere I had, they’re sorry for my going away,
And of all the sweethearts that ere I had , they wish me one more day to stay,
But since it falls unto my lot that I should rise while you should not,
I will gently rise and I’ll softly call, “Goodnight and joy be with you all.”
Everyone finished their whiskey so I did the same, grimacing at its smoky sweet taste. It burnt my throat the whole way down.
Then came the party.
After the song, the same song every time, the house nearly burst with jubilation. The whiskey would start to flow, the food would be served, and Grandma Seáin would spend the whole time next to Uncle Thomas’ body, next to the body of whatever poor soul had drawn the lot that we should rise and they should not.
That first funeral wake seemed very strange but also very important, just like my dad had said, because I was the only kid allowed to participate in such a mysterious, magical ceremony. None of the other aunts or uncles had small children, my gaggle of cousins were mostly in their twenties. I was the only kid and I didn’t question that because I thought that was okay.
Between the party-like atmosphere, the dancing and the drinking, I noticed a few people fussing around my cousin Emma. She didn’t look happy like everyone else; my aunts and uncles were trying to get her to drink more, dance more, and she obliged them a little yet kept trying to sit near Grandma Seáin, who all but ignored her. Emma sat on the floor and tugged at Grandma Seáin’s skirt. I still remember her pale face, her pleading eyes, but Grandma Seáin held fast and sat in silence beside her dead son. Again and again Emma was swept away and eventually she stopped trying.
At three in the morning, the funeral wake ended. Uncle Thomas was carried out on that same long wooden table head-first. Where his body went after that, only Grandpa Seáin and my dad knew. They were the only ones allowed to carry the bodies out of the house; they would return hours later, dirty and exhausted. I always wondered why they wouldn’t let anyone help.
Now I know. I know a lot of things I wish I didn’t.
Seven months later, Emma was dead.
My dad told me she had been very sick but he didn’t want me to worry about it; the whole family knew Emma only had so much time left. I can’t remember now what he told me she was sick with but I do know it was a lie.
Then came the long wooden table, the cleansing, the beads wrapped around her right hand. She looked like a waxy doll too, just like Uncle Thomas. Her mouth kept popping open.
Stop the clocks, cover the mirrors. A glass of whiskey for Grandma Seáin, a glass of whiskey for everyone. Sing “The Parting Glass,” drink the parting glass. Eat, drink, dance. At three in the morning, Grandpa Seáin and my dad take the body. The table goes back in the cellar.
This happened a lot over the course of my life in Belmullet. It happened too often, now that I can look back without the ignorant glow of childhood smudging everything out of focus.
Always a perfectly reasonable explanation: a work mishap, an unknown illness, a hereditary disease. Sometimes it was an accident, sometimes they went in their sleep. An aunt here, a cousin there, another uncle to lay on that long wooden table while we toasted their death.
Because that’s what we were doing. Don’t you realize that by now? It took me 10 years to realize it but I do: we were toasting their death, and the death of others to come.
10 years, 10 deaths, 10 Seáin family funeral wakes.
I turned 17 yesterday. Grandpa Seáin said he wanted to take me for a drink with my dad. I thought he meant to one of the local pubs — Grandpa Seáin is in good with the bartender, has been for a long time — but instead he and my dad headed downstairs, down into the cellar.
In 10 years measured by 10 deaths I had never gone into the cellar. Never even dreamed of it because I had been told it was sacred, so much of what the Seáin family did was sacred and I grew up knowing that, respecting that. It took some doing to muster up the courage to follow them but 17 is a sacred age, a sacred number, and so I figured this was part of our tradition.
Do you want to hear the truth about the Seáin funeral wake tradition?
I can tell you the truth because Grandpa Seáin told me and even though I’m not supposed to tell anyone else I have to.
Some of the process isn’t all that bad. Things my family did that I didn’t question: stop all the clocks (to confuse the devil, give the deceased’s spirit time to get to heaven,) cover the mirrors (so the soul cannot be trapped inside.) Regular, normal old Irish beliefs. It’s the rest that’s hard to swallow, like that first swig of whiskey when I was seven.
I didn’t mention that in all this time, Grandma and Grandpa Seáin aged really well. While younger, healthy-seeming members of the family dropped off like flies, Grandma and Grandpa Seáin remained hearty, in good spirits. I didn’t mention it because like everything else, I thought it was okay. I was grateful to have such resilient grandparents. My dad, well, he aged pretty well too. Once he got back to Ireland, anyway.
He started by explaining that he had to come back Home. He had made a mistake leaving in the first place and he realized it around the time I turned seven, around the time his back started to hurt and he couldn’t run up a flight of stairs without wheezing. Around the time he started to feel old.
He had to come back and Mom didn’t want us to go so he just left and even though he didn’t say it, I don’t think he even filed for divorce. I don’t think Mom knows where I am. Not a lot of people know where the Seáins live, for good reason.
So my dad came back and he brought me and Grandma and Grandpa Seáin were so happy because my dad and I, well, we’re very important. We’re the chosen sons of the Seáins, just like Grandpa Seáin. We have a very important job to do.
Our job is to carry the body out head-first. You see, it’s supposed to be the other way around. We’re supposed to carry them out feet-first because that way they can’t look back and beckon someone to follow them in death. We carry them out head-first so that’s exactly what they do.
Then we take the body to the bogs.
We, the chosen sons of the Seáins, cut off the hand that Grandma Seáin wrapped with beads and dump the rest into the marshy darkness. We bring the hand home, return the beads to Grandma Seáin, and for the next seven months we keep the hand in a recently-opened jar of our finest whiskey, the same whiskey we just drank to toast someone’s death.
For the next seven months, Grandma and Grandpa Seáin drink from the jar. My dad does, too, but not as much. Whatever is leftover goes to my aunts and uncles, then the cousins. All of them but one. The one Grandma Seáin picks.
It keeps them — not young, exactly. But strong. Healthy. Let’s just say that while it doesn’t keep them young that Grandma and Grandpa Seáin are a lot older than they look.
I haven’t gotten any of that particular whiskey. I’ve only drank the untouched batch served at the funeral wake. I haven’t needed it. Until now.
Now I’m 17. I drank the last of the whiskey from the jar, the one with my Aunt Grace’s hand floating in it, and tomorrow one of my family members is going to die. I’m not sure which one, I just know it won’t be me.
Because I’m a chosen son of the Seáins and I’m very important. I just hope it won’t be too hard to cut off their hands.