Updated: Oct 27
A Surprising and Life-Affirming Part of Traditional Irish Burial Practices
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It was a fine summer day in 1996 when I drove up to our Flynn family's old stone cottage on Farm Road in County Roscommon, Ireland, where my father’s cousin Paddy Flynn still lived. Paddy, a thin, wiry man in his eighties, had suffered a recent stroke. Standing at his door, he raised his arm slightly to welcome me as I got out of my rental car. He was frail and gaunt, and I noticed he'd lost some movement on his left side. As we hugged and said hello, his words slurred slightly, but his mind was clear. All around us, the moist green summer fields were fecund and sprawling. Paddy’s son Bobby, a round-faced, friendly Irishman, was just then herding a couple dozen cows into the barn. Soon we three sat in the front room, and Bobby brought out a pot of Irish tea.
As we chatted about family history and my travels around Ireland, at one point I inquired where our ancestors were buried.
“At Moore Cemetery,” Bobby said. “Everyone is there, including my mother. Paddy himself will be buried there when the time comes.”
Paddy spoke haltingly, “But the old graves of the Flynns, from my great-grandfather Sean Bob and back before him, are at the old Kilcroan Cemetery.”
Within the hour I was driving with Paddy in my rental car through the open fields of Roscommon. At a bend in the road, he gestured to pull over at Kilcroan Cemetery up on a hill. He was fragile, relying heavily on his cane. Face gaunt, hard whiskers around his mouth and cheeks, he walked slowly up the incline of the graveyard towards the oldest part of the cemetery. Then he picked up his cane and pointed it.
“There. My grandfather’s father is buried there. That’s the Flynn burial ground.”
“There” was a rough area, heavily overgrown, old graves with small unmarked stones, a few engraved markers so old they were impossible to read.
I walked among the stones, thick with moss, reeds and tall grass. Then I kneeled. There was no marker except an ancient man pointing with his cane. I closed my eyes. I told the souls of this place that I had come. I didn’t know if they could hear me. It had been such a long time. This was no longer an active burial place; the land had taken in the bodies of trees, animals, birds, plants, grasses as well as humans. Somewhere below me, the bones of my Flynn great-great-grandparents rested. Their bodies had been taken in and become earth. This land where I now knelt was them. I put my hand on the grassy soil that had become their final home.
The area of a family’s burial ground, I learned, was the equivalent of two or maybe three conventional burial plots. Yet people could count seven, eight, nine, twelve people in those burial grounds, over several generations. This was when I learned of the old Irish practice of opening graves to bury the dead in the land alongside the family ancestors. The earliest anyone was allowed to do this, they said, was about fifteen years. People opened the grave, pulled out whatever was left of the coffin and bones of the older loved ones, then placed the new coffin in, and surrounded it with the bones of the ancestors.
“But how is it done?” I asked Paddy and Bobby later that day.
“Well, the neighbors do it,” Bobby said. “You never dig your own family’s grave. They dig down to the bones, and take them out carefully, to get to the depth they have to get to.”
“What do you think of it?” I asked. “Burying the dead this way?” I was trying to broaden my mind, but they could probably sense that a part of me was astonished that anyone would dig up a grave, ever.
“I don’t like it that much myself,” Bobby admitted. “The practice seems to be dying out now. I helped with a neighbor of ours. I wasn’t expecting. . . it was thirty years. I was surprised that there was so much left. It’s a messy job to be disturbing bones.”
“Paddy, did you ever, for a neighbor, dig up a grave?” I asked.
“Sure, I have," the old man nodded.
“And, well, laying the bones along the side. How’d you feel about it?”
“I thought it was fine,” he replied. “It’s a natural thing to do. To bury someone with their relatives, if somebody wants to be buried there. I myself would want that.”
It’s a natural thing to do. In that statement, one can see a different way of living, and of dying. It would be my last wish, said old Paddy, to be buried at home, in the earth, surrounded by the bones of my relatives and ancestors. What could be more natural? Talking with Paddy, I touched what it might be to know that in death one would rest in one’s own land, within the arms of kin. That a grave could be a connected and warm place, and death itself the opposite of being cut loose into a lonely void, but a return, finally, into an eternal joining with the land itself.
What will our final home be when we die? For Paddy, it was clear. Our ancestors had made their home together into the land. The earth had a soul, and so did they, and the two had been joined. They had become part of the land itself. They were now, literally and metaphorically, part of the trees of the cemetery. It is the way of the earth, which is constantly making and remaking itself. What material does the earth use? Us—all of us, all the trees, plants, animals and all matter that once lived and ever died. Everything is made of something and someone else. Together in the land, the Irish dead do rest.
--Excerpt from The Light of Ordinary Days, Carolyn's forthcoming memoir/history of Ireland.
--Published in a slightly different form in Death: Deep Reflections, edited by Pamela Eakins, August 2020.
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