2023 Grateful 2: The business of death

I’ve been to my share of funerals. I’ve missed even more. But I never fully appreciated what went into planning one. The task seemed daunting.

Occasionally, over the years, after being at a viewing (avoiding the open casket) or a funeral mass, I’d wonder what I’d do if both my parents died together. I’d be lost. I wouldn’t have a clue. When Boss died a few months back, Mam was in full fettle. She directed the proceedings. I stood aside and learned.

I learned that a good funeral director is invaluable. Almost everyone in our neck of the woods goes to Oliver Reilly Funeral Directors, now run by Oliver’s son Paul Reilly. So, we made the phone call and he appeared.

When I say he did everything but physically dig the grave, I’m not exaggerating. Every question that began with ‘What about…’ was answered with ‘I’ll sort that.’ He made the calls, got the people we needed, and quietly offered his opinion when we couldn’t decide.

When he brought Boss back home, I was on the verge of a panic attack. I’d never seen a corpse before. Other than on TV. And those episodes of Six Feet Under weren’t going to do it for me.

I felt a curious detachment when I looked at my dad. It looked nothing like him. How could it? He was but a shadow of his former self. A fine-built man in his prime, by the end he was nothing but skin and bone. Everything had shrunk – except his hands.

I’m not sure if there’s an expected standard response when a corpse comes back embalmed to be waked. Whatever it was, I didn’t give it. It was the first time I’d ever seen a corpse and I didn’t know how to react. Paul Reilly noticed and asked if I was okay with what he’d done.

He looks nothing like my dad, I said. The mouth, it’s all wrong.

Did you bring back the right corpse? Mam asked.

I brought back to the one you gave me, came the quick response.

We laughed. And in that laugh was a moment of togetherness. For 72 hours, Paul Reilly was family.

He was the one we all turned to when we had a question about anything from flowers to music to mass leaflets. We didn’t have to worry about anything other than feeding those who came to pay their last respects, and choosing the readings and the music. The rest he and his team took care of. No fuss. No palaver. No hassle.

Reading the regional paper this weekend, I noticed that Reillys has received a Certificate of Excellence from the Irish Association of Funeral Directors (IAFD). They’re the first in the county to have passed muster.

I read, too, that Paul Reilly himself is a fully qualified embalmer. That got me thinking. If it’s not a family business, what would attract you to the business?

In the USA, some colleges offer courses in Mortuary Science. In Ireland, there’s the Irish College of Funeral Directing and Embalming and the Death Care Academy.

I find it all fascinating.

Which in and of itself is fascinating, given that until this year I’d never seen a corpse and in the last six months I’ve been with two people as they’ve taken their last breath.

It’s never too late for a career change.

There’s something strangely beautiful about the job. But it’s not a job. It’s a vocation.

I’m grateful, as no doubt so many others are, that Paul Reilly does what he does so brilliantly.




2 Responses

  1. Certainly this is a topic most of us are familiar with. I love your matter-of-fact approach, making it readable (I couldn’t watch as the hearse took Glenn away from our home). It’s comforting to think of it in context of your — can I say fascination? — with cemeteries.

Talk to me...