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Returning death to the community

Author: Cormac Russell
14 November 2017

Cormac Russell, Managing Director of Nurture Development, will be speaking at Hospice UK’s national conference next week. Here he has written about the important role of community in supporting the dying.

At this year’s Hospice UK conference I will speak about the hospice movement as an attempt to return death back to the centre of community life and restore the function of helping our neighbours die.  Whilst recognising the importance of clinicians and services, I will explore the space beyond the limits of what institutions can do to assist our end of life experiences, and shine a light on how the assets of community are of vital importance in this space in having a good life into death, and dying well in the fullness of life.

This post aims to give a flavour of what you can expect to hear. Let me start with a little story:

On April 2,1978, in the quiet village of Brosna, Co. Kerry, Con Carey was found dead; as it was Sunday morning, he was buried in a rather rushed fashion the next day. His friends took the view that he was not properly interred. Local custom of the time would have demanded a proper ‘wake’ be held for mourners to keep watch or vigil over their dead until they were buried, having received a ‘proper good-bye’.

Talk soon turned to action, and the day after Con’s burial, April 4, eleven men and one woman - all friends - travelled to the neighbouring parish of Mountcollins where Con had been buried. In a profound act of indigenous respect, they set about digging up Con’s grave, removing him from the coffin, washing his body, laying him out properly and praying over him. These actions earned them the name the ‘Twelve Apostles’ and the respect of their neighbours, who would have known what had happened, given that the body was dug up in plain view during daylight hours.

An investigation quickly followed – with a file sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The village folk kept quiet and so none of the Twelve Apostles were ever publicly identified. To this day they remain unnamed, such is the esteem in which they are held locally.

John B. Keane the famous Irish play writer and poet immortalised the story in the ‘Ballad of Con Carey.'

There are very serious taboos against disturbing a grave. Certainly, in rural Ireland in 1978, the thought that after a Parish Priest had officiated over the burial of someone, that un-ordained people would undo and redo a formal ‘blessed’ burial would have been tantamount to sacrilege. Yet in this instance it was not. The final adjudicators of the rightness of Con’s last rite of passage were his community, and they decided that the job was half done. So, without so much as ‘by your leave’, they by-passed state and Canon law, and followed the natural law of common sense, to give their friend the send-off they believed he deserved.

Across the world until recent times societies were practiced in the art of suffering; each culture had ways (rituals) of making sense of existence and of engaging with the limits of the human condition, including death. This is not at all surprising given that life is a terminal condition, hence having ways of making meaning of the fact that we all die, is critical to human flourishing.

Modern societies by contrast, while boasting large service systems, which often make promises to overcome the human condition, and to leap frog the given limits it presents us with: to cheat death so to speak, or at least to fight it back till the bitter end, have fewer and fewer community-led ways of embracing death.

Our systems are limited in what they can do in the face of death, and while they do much of great importance, there is an irreplaceable role for communities. That is what the villagers of Brosna were reminding their local priest, there is a way, our way to bury our dead, and if you rush it, or displace our role within it, while we will respect the sacramental role you have played, we will re-do the community piece ourselves.

And so accordingly death brought a community to life; consequently, Con Carey could rest in peace. It was a collective palliative care act, driven, I would contend, by the same impulses that inspired Dame Cicely Saunders to initiate the hospice movement in the UK and beyond.

I am very much looking forward to reflecting with delegates on November 24 at the national UK Hospice Conference, on the role of communities in having a good life into death, and dying well in the fullness of life. 

My hope is that it will start a new national conversation, which to my mind, ought to be at the center of how we think about wellbeing and what it is to have a “Good Life." 

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