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“Do you know who’s dead?” Our mothers perused the death notices in the Irish Independent unfailingly every day. Not turning up at a neighbour’s obsequies or not sending the obligatory mass card would be a serious omission. As we age we take on mother’s mantle and read the death notices ourselves. We have moved up a notch to The Irish Times and curse the fact that not everyone dies in the same paper. We have recourse to rip.ie and hope that we have not missed anyone.

Irish death notices are an interesting social study. I can recommend it to the twenty and thirtysomethings. It might smarten them up a bit about the social history of Ireland. One can play a game of guessing what part of the country the deceased is from just by reading the surname. There aren’t too many McGinleys in Kerry or McGillicuddys in Donegal. This is beginning to change with more social mobility and the first exotic Eastern European names have made an appearance. A study of the dramatically different first names of the generations can be a fun exercise. Granny Teresa is often the mother of Paddy and Eileen but she’s almost a dead cert to be the granny of Sharon and Karen and maybe even the great-gran of Jack, Chloe and Sophie. Try it. It’s uncanny. Elderly religious are dying at the rate of several a week. Has anyone noticed that they tend to come from very large families? Now what was going on there? Needless to say they are not entering the orders at the same rate as they are dying. Mention is often made of the former workplace of elderly men and single women but rarely of married women. This is a reminder of the days when married women in the public service had to quit the job. Spare a thought too for the single women who soldiered on alone. It’s all there in the death notices.

Death notices are couched in inflated language. They ooze clichés. I suspect that undertakers may be partly responsible here. Perhaps they press a formulaic announcement on mourners who may not be in a frame of mind to offer resistance. Huge numbers, we are told, ‘pass on’ (nobody dies anymore) ‘after a long illness bravely borne’. It would be a brave person who would complain in the face of such pressure to bear everything so heroically. I imagine if Uncle Joe was a crank of long standing his passing would still be couched in these silly terms. The deceased was invariably ‘in the tender loving care’ of X or Y nursing home or hospital. Hang on a minute. Medical professionals are obliged to care for us but to expect them to love us tenderly seems a bit unrealistic. They are just people doing a job. If our own families loved us tenderly we would be doing very well. Even that is not always the case. One could be forgiven for thinking that people these days are either suing medical personnel or thanking them in the most gushing terms. A little moderation please.

The dying person is said to pass on ‘surrounded by’ a loving family. ‘Surrounded by’ sounds positively frightening. Give the unfortunate person some air for God’s sake. I have heard nurses complain that it is sometimes difficult to get near the patient such is the press of relatives. Would ‘in the presence of’ sound a little less intimidating? ‘Surrounded by’ puts me in mind of those scenes from Dickens where some poor wretch is in extremis while an army of relatives seek to beat off the lawyers lest he be tempted to disinherit them. Mercifully feminism has seen off the dreadful term ‘relict’ to describe a widow. ‘Mary, relict of Michael’ was once ubiquitous. Meaning that Mary was part of the property he was leaving behind. We should give language more thought.
As I recall, provincial and evening papers are more given to long reams of doggerel verse. Or maybe that’s the In Memoriam announcements. Imported American notices seem excessive in the extreme. What a rí rá.  Many death notices end by suggesting that mourners donate to this or that charity. When did this start? It seems a little odd to be telling people to give money. I can’t quite get my head around this. Surely some things should be left to the discretion of the individual. It smacks of giving orders.

There is a solution to all this unthinking conformity. Each one of us should write out our own death notice well in advance. Dates etc can be filled in later. Keep it simple and truthful. There was one death notice in the past number of years which impressed by its brevity and honesty. It was that of a well known politician. It stated simply ‘Will be missed by those who loved him’. Now, that’s class.

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