It’s a given that we are all going to die. And while attitudes and customs are changing, there are constants also. We discover those who face grief on a daily basis.
Amongst the capital’s population of 1.8 million, there are approximately two-hundred graveyards, twenty-five listed funeral directors and 1.6 million bodies buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, alone. It isn’t surprising, then, to learn that Dublin is known as “The city of the dead.”
Irish people, Dubliners especially, possess an inherent morbid fascination for the dead.
We inspect sunken headstones of people we never knew, who lived centuries before us. Without confirmation of their presence, we celebrate spirits after Samhain. Recently, in a coffee shop on George’s Street, I came across a man in hot pursuit of a newspaper purely to peruse the death notices. “I like to see what names I recognise”, he exclaimed. If you continue up that street, heading towards Portobello, you’ll pass by two funeral homes; Fanagans and Corrigan & Sons. In a popular pub, close to the canal, it is said that a man regularly perched at the bar died for ten minutes and came back to life. Stories like that keep our curiosity alive.
Over the centuries, the rituals of burial have changed. The keeners have been silenced, wakes are in a state of permanent hibernation and the black ribbons tied to doors have loosened their grip on societal customs. However, many people maintain a sort of superstition towards the dead. The belief that you can converse with the dead is held by many. The presence of a feather in the kitchen or a robin in the garden is enough to resonate as a response.
We have an unusual relationship with death in Dublin. To get a better understanding of how we treat death throughout the capital, I spoke to people working in various aspects of the business of dying. For many, getting involved in this industry is no small undertaking.
“You’re only as good as your last funeral”
“You’re only as good as your last funeral”, Peter Maguire, a third-generation of the Massey family, a name synonymous in Dublin’s death industry, tells me.
Maguire entered Massey Bros, in an official capacity, fifteen-years ago. Reared in a business established by his grandparents in the 1930s, Maguire says, “inherently, I’ve always been involved in the business in some shape or form.” Originally butchers by trade, Maguire’s grandmother Cissie Massey felt that funerals in Dublin needed to be improved. She recognised this niche during a period where there was a limited supply of funeral directors catering to the demands of the city. Today, Massey Bros have eleven funeral homes covering communities from The Liberties all the way to Blackrock, their latest branch.
The youngest of eight siblings (most of whom are involved in some aspect of the family business), Maguire is extremely pleasant to talk to. He’s calm, very forthcoming with information and attentively notes any query I have. His is the ideal temperament for this profession.
For a brief period, after he finished school, Maguire had doubts about following in the family way. “I suppose, entering the business at a very young age, I thought there must be more to life than funeral directing. I was always interested in property, that’s what I studied in college. Once I completed my Masters degree in Commercial property, I had a premonition; a calling to the family business. I felt it was my duty and my desire to come back to the business.”
“I mentioned this to my family and moved to London to work with the Lodge Brothers, they’ve been in the industry for over two-hundred years in England. I worked there for four years.” Naturally, the cost of living in London for anyone is a challenge to maintain. To subsidise his earnings, Maguire worked at a woodland burial site in Chiltern. In England, Maguire informed me, “it’s popular to forgo a headstone, opting for the body to be buried beneath a tree.” Double-jobbing in the death industry in another country, albeit a neighbouring one, opened Maguire’s eyes to how differently death is dealt with in England and Ireland. “It was so interesting to live there and then come back here where it’s very different.” The most obvious distinction is that, in England, people tend to wait a few weeks before they bury the dead.
I asked Maguire about Ireland’s fascination with the dead. He noted that people are more open about death, “talking about death is not a taboo anymore, if anything it’s a conversation. I was at a social event recently where I was paraded with lots of questions about my profession. That isn’t unusual, at all. I guess it’s just in our psyche to be curious about the industry.”
This changing societal attitude has sprouted into a trend of mortal pragmatism. In the last decade, Dubliners have been more proactive in making their own funeral arrangements. “I would meet about ten people a week wanting to pre-record their funeral. There’s an interest to hear what options are available. To educate oneself on what services we can provide once they pass away. I think it’s a very practical thing to do. After all, there are only two certainties in life; we’re born and we die.”
Outside, the evening over The Coombe darkened to a rich navy hue as Maguire fondly remembered how, in his father’s original funeral home located on Thomas Street, the parlour was upstairs. This meant that the coffin would have had to been carried up a flight of steps for the mourning party to congregate. Throughout our conversation, Maguire’s pride of being a funeral director is palpable. I thank him for his time, and Maguire’s parting words solidify his joy, “I’ve always been in the industry and it’s something that I truly, truly love.”
“It’s not just about the deceased, it’s about the living, as well”
Before he became based in the North Strand branch opened by his grandfather in 1953, Jonathan Stafford planned to become an accountant. That was twenty-five years ago. An entrepreneurial streak saw his grandfather endeavour in a number of businesses before settling into funeral directing. In his many professional past lives, he ran a chauffeur service, a hackney business and delivered bread.
After college, Jonathan Stafford decided to follow the path of his grandfather and father, becoming a third-generation funeral director. Reflecting on his decision, Stafford says, bemused, that his brothers (both younger and involved in the business) always claimed that he was “perfect for the role.”
He recalled his earliest experiences of death and how they would, inevitably, inform how he approaches his work today. “My first experience with death would have been my maternal grandmother when I was a young boy. The memory of that encouraged me to be the best funeral director, to my ability. It made me realise the importance of the work we do; it’s not just about the deceased, it’s about the living, as well. It’s so important to create an atmosphere where the families feel protected.”
More recently, Stafford’s mother passed away. This had a further profound effect on him. Instilling, even more, the sensitivity required for his work. “That made it feel closer to the bone. The impact a death of a parent can have on children, whether they’re young or old, reminds you of the importance in making sure that everything goes well and that you have empathy for the grieving family.”
For the entirety of my conversation with Stafford, he is charismatic. I wondered how, in a career with such responsibility and sadness, dealing with death on a daily basis alters one’s perspectives and priorities. “I definitely have a different perspective, my friends would even say that. I’m not the type to get worried or perturbed by anything”, Stafford asserts. “Obviously, in this line of work it’s so important to do your best job for each family. There’s no room for mistakes. On the other hand, this line of work makes you not worry about certain things because at the end of the day life is short. It’s about living your life and not heading towards death all the time.”
Worries aside, when you’re dealing with grieving families and exposed to extremely sad cases of death involving tragic accidents or the death of a child, how is it possible to unwind after a day’s work? “There’s a few personalities in me”, Stafford confesses. “Obviously, I have a funeral director persona which is very sombre and sensitive. Then, there’s a different side to my personality that enjoys socialising with friends. I wouldn’t be the life and soul of the party”, he jokes, “but I don’t hold back, I wouldn’t be sitting in the corner waiting for people to talk to me.”
Continuing in this vein, Stafford affirms the importance of switching off and how that comes easier with age and experience. “I found it harder to switch off when I was younger. I didn’t have the full understanding of how crucial it was, especially following a particularly upsetting funeral. You realise that it’s not your fault that they passed away. I have to focus on the family and the person who has passed away. From there, you can move on, to a certain extent, because there’s nothing worse than dwelling on the past. You learn to compartmentalise. Fortunately, as you get older you do get wiser.”
Looking back over his career, Stafford comments on how the industry has evolved. The main difference, as noted by everyone I spoke to, is the rising popularity of cremation. “When that started, in 1982, there was only 4% whereas today roughly 40% of people choose cremation. It’s a combination of cost and people like having an option where they don’t have to go into the ground.”
The other changes in how we celebrate death are fascinating as they herald the traditions of the past. The wake, a social gathering where the corpse is presented in the deceased’s home, has been in decline for some time. However, Stafford has noticed a revival of this uniquely Irish tradition, in recent years. “I think the Catholic Church probably introduced the removal to the church the night before the funeral to put an end to wakes because of the wild parties we had in Ireland. Interestingly enough, they seem to be coming back; not the wild parties, exactly, but we’ve held a number of wakes in our funeral homes.
It goes without saying that everyone’s treatment of death is different. Stafford comments on “a personalisation of the various ceremonial elements which, you would say, we’re traditionally good at. People choose from those elements to stay true to their preferences. Nothing is set in stone with contemporary funerals. Whereas, ten or fifteen years ago, funerals would have been quite routine. You would have gone from the place of death to the funeral home before heading to the church the night before for the removal and then the funeral happens the next day.”
Elsewhere, people’s coffin choices have changed. We’re more aware of how our actions impact the planet for future generations, not just in life but also in death. Environmentally friendly coffins are more popular than ever. Amongst the natural options available in today’s market are wicker coffins and caskets of water hyacinth or seagrass.
Keeping the future in mind, I asked Jonathan about the prospect of the family business entering its fourth generation of funeral directors. “Absolutely. My children have already taken over in their minds! They’re ready to push me out the door. Not that I had no interest when I was younger but I genuinely never thought about it or even discussed it when I was younger. They do all the time. At very young ages too, they’re only 9 and 12. My youngest, as far as she’s concerned, is already the boss!”
“Amongst them are plots adorned with small scale pianos, sewing machines, bottles of Bulmers and gold foil Louis Vuitton emblems etched into a headstone”
“I won’t be getting a headstone, I want to be cremated and scattered. My husband will be the same. I don’t want my kids to feel that they have to go a cemetery. I know where I want my ashes scattered and I’ve told them to plant a tree by the river nearby our home, and that’s it.”
This was not the answer I had anticipated from Gill McDonald when I asked if she had decided on a design for her own headstone. Nestled in a residential area in Crumlin, McDonald and her husband Kevin have been in the headstone business, O’Neills Memorials, for twenty-five years. It was originally opened in 1965 by John O’Neill, Kevin’s former employer. “My husband Kevin was the stonemason and John took the orders for headstones. When the time came for John to retire we bought the business off him and kept the O’Neill Memorials name.”
I spoke to Gill in the comfort of her office on a particularly wet Saturday morning. Sitting at her desk, we were surrounded by a wonderful collection of granite designs available for families to decorate the graves of the departed. There was a pint of Guinness, football boots and hearts twinkling with encrusted crystals. After I inspected all around me, I told her that headstones have changed considerably from how I remembered them.
“You still get a lot of people looking for the classic design, something very simple. In saying that, others want to be different from everyone else.” McDonald scrolled through endless rows of headstones commissioned over the last two decades, all catalogued in a folder on her computer. Amongst them are plots adorned with small scale pianos, sewing machines, bottles of Bulmers and gold foil Louis Vuitton emblems etched into a headstone.
Remarkably, outside of her professional life, death has not penetrated McDonald’s life. “We’ve been very lucky”, she told me. “Both mine and Kevin’s parents are still alive. My granny is still alive, she’s ninety-seven!” Following that, when McDonald showed me graves with statues of sleeping childlike angels atop small slabs of granite, the unforgiving nature of death enters the conversation. It’s exceptionally sad to see several headstones for children, eighteen-year olds and people who passed away in their thirties. Their personalities captured in song lyrics and poems inscribed at the base of the stone. Their hobbies displayed in miniature motorbikes set on the surface of the soil. Their handprints etched onto the headstone, the final human trace for families to hold onto. They’re reminders that in every plot a different story is contained.
When I was in secondary school, the bus route home passed Glasnevin Cemetery, various funeral homes and a headstone business. The latter has since been replaced with a créche. Of the three, I was always fixated on the headstone business. “What an unusual job”, I pondered on many grey afternoons. I wondered if it was possible to enjoy a job so closely related to death. A decade later, I finally had my answer.
“I do enjoy my job, it’s very rewarding. You get people coming to us who were anxious about getting this part done. They might be afraid of crying in front of you or are embarrassed because a few years have passed before getting a headstone for their loved one. After they’ve sat down with me and we discuss their options you can see that they have a weight lifted from their shoulders when they leave. I enjoy listening to everyone and put them at ease.”
Berry Flynn (Flynn’s Flowers)
“People aren’t buying as many bunches of flowers anymore. They often select a single sprig for a coffin or to place on a grave”
For forty years, Flynn’s Flowers has supplied beautiful fresh cut flowers at the gate of Mount Jerome, the final resting place of Irish playwright J.M. Synge and painter Jack B. Yeats, respectively. Owner Betty Flynn tells me that she inherited the business with her husband from her father-in-law, who previously sold an assortment of sweets and various haberdashery in the premises, twenty-years prior.
The retail space, from its quaint exterior to the wood paneled walls dotted with circular, colour-coordinated floral arrangements, has an immediate charm. In one section of the rectangular room is a corner lined with rows of shelves filled with modestly-sized memorial plaques. Across from that is Betty Flynn’s counter, busy with a scatter of paper and various items required for a day’s work. Issues of the day permeate the stillness in the air as a popular afternoon radio show provides spectral company. The aforementioned plaques, each engraved with universal messages expressing deepest sympathies, are grave reminders that this flower shop caters, predominantly, to a specific clientele.
In the time it takes Betty Flynn to make a fresh bouquet of pink lilies, she and the customer, a man of middle age, exchanged several inconsequential details about their children. Flynn’s son is home from Australia for a visit while the man tells her that he is waiting to meet his teenage daughter who has taken the bus from Glasnevin to Harold’s Cross alone, for the first time. Their conversation is warm and heartening. After he leaves cradling the bouquet, swaddled pastel petals resting in the crook of his arm, Flynn tells me that lilies are extremely popular. “We’re very good value for lilies, we’d be a good bit cheaper than a lot of places. That’s why people would come to us.”
More regularly than not, however, bouquets tend to travel home to dress a room. For graves, people invest in something with a longer lifespan, ironically. “We sell a fair amount of plants. People will buy plants for the grave and bring flowers home to their houses.” The increase of cremations in Dublin has changed business for Flynn’s Flowers; “People aren’t buying as many bunches of flowers anymore. They often select a single sprig for a coffin or to place on a grave.”
The ritual of visiting the grave of a loved one and maintaining its appearance is incredibly important for a myriad of reasons. The sombre solitude contained within the walls of a graveyard can be comforting. I returned to the detail of the lone stem and why we dress burial sites. Flynn ponders, “I don’t know, to be honest with you. It certainly seems to be more of a Dublin thing, though. You don’t have people from the country doing it so much. I suppose, from generation to generation, it’s a little ritual the bereaved have to keep the dead in their weekly routine. I’ve seen the same faces over the last forty years coming to the graveyard with their mothers, that are now bringing their own children to visit a plot. You get to know the people as they come into the shop to pick up a plant or a bunch of flowers.”
Words: Zara Hedderman
Photos: Malcolm McGettigan