'The Irish wake is the best way to deal with death'

In My Father's Wake: How The Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die, Bafta award-winning writer and journalist Kevin Toolis celebrates the Irish approach to death and mourning. The former Irish News reporter spoke to David Roy about the inspiration for this highly personal new book

Kevin Toolis, whose new book My Father's Wake extols the virtues of the traditional Irish way of death Picture: Mal McCann

THE wake has been used to mark the end of human life since ancient times: The Illiad, published in the eighth century BC, ends with an account of Hector's wake in Troy, complete with feasting, vigils and keening women.

Edinburgh-born journalist and film-maker Kevin Toolis's new book My Father's Wake: How The Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die is a passionate positioning of the traditional Irish Catholic wake as a healthy, healing way of death.

He begins this lyrical, autobiographical rumination by quoting from Homer's famous poem.

"The generations of men are like generations of leaves... one grows as the other comes to end."

Toolis knows a thing or two about the dead and the dying.

Aged 11, he contracted TB and spent time in the Male Chest ward of a crumbling sanatorium surrounded by terminal cases of lung cancer.

After beginning his journalistic career at The Irish News in 1982, he went on to specialise in reporting on conflict from Belfast to Beiruit, documenting violent loss of life from Glasnevin to Gaza and beyond – "death hunting" as he refers to it.

His previous book, Rebel Hearts: Journeys Within The IRA's Soul (1995) probed the psychology of politically motivated gunmen, while documentary film trilogy The Cult of The Suicide Bomber examined the evolution of modern self-sacrificical terror.

The Toolis family hail from Dookinella on the Co Mayo island of Achill.

It was the death of Kevin's father, Patrick – known to all as 'Sonny' – in 1993 which set Toolis on the path to writing this very personal book, in which he champions family and community-orientated gatherings around an open coffin over the more clinical, commercially minded approach of the "Western Death Machine".

"Death in the West is a closed door on a closed room in a closed world," Toolis writes.

"For the last two centuries, Western society has slowly striven and largely succeeded in removing the dead and the dying from public sight.

"We have pulled the curtains across, privatised our mortality and turned death into a whisper."

The book opens with a moving account of his elderly father's final moments.

Dying of pancreatic cancer, Sonny was laid-up in the family home while relatives, neighbours and other witnesses held vigil.

"I was standing by the side of his bed when he was moments away from death with this mixture of kin and clan and relative strangers, some of whom I'd never spoken to before" Toolis told me during a recent visit to Belfast.

"I felt like sort of slight traitor in my skin, because I was thinking, 'well, who are these people?'

"I had this revelation that someone should write about this, that it shouldn't just be this entirely private thing: what these people were enacting was an ancient, almost Homeric rite and a way of dealing with death that is a real challenge to western individualism."

Sonny's body was washed and prepared for his coffin by family members. He was 'laid out' in an open coffin in his own sitting room as his three young grandchildren played by the feet of the coffin.

This death in Dookinella – where "going to see the dead as their body lies in a bed or coffin in the front room, or at a funeral home, is part of life's pattern, a social obligation" and listeners can enjoy thrice-daily roll calls of the freshly deceased on the local country and western radio station – contrasted sharply with that of Kevin's older brother, Bernard, in Edinburgh 23 years before.

Diagnosed with leukemia, Bernard received a life-saving bone marrow donation from Kevin, then aged 18. However, with his immune system weakened by the procedure, Bernard later died from a viral lung infection while undergoing hospital treatment. He was 26.

The Toolis family were forced to say their goodbyes to Bernard in a isolated hospital cubicle and then, later, in a funeral parlour.

Similarly, when Kevin's mother, Mary, died of a heart-attack just over a decade later, her body was quickly whisked away in an ambulance for postmortem examination before being placed in the care of the same undertaker who had 'dealt' with Bernard.

"What has happened outside Ireland is that we've got a kind of passivity towards death," says Toolis, who lived and worked in London for many years.

"When someone dies, you sort of think, 'oh, well we'll call the authorities'.

"The Western Death Machine has a collective way of both diminishing the physicality of death – the contact with the actual body itself – and professionalising it, from the medical profession to cemeteries and crematoriums.

"In London, undertakers will usually provide you with pallbearers and it will take about two or three weeks to get a slot at a crematorium.

"You can't have a wake for three weeks, so the whole thing breaks down."

He adds: "The book is a memoir, but beyond that it's about the value of getting in contact with the old way of death, of dealing with death by potentially socialising it."

Despite the revelation which came to him at his father's bedside, it was some years before Toolis admitted to himself that he should be the man to eulogise the Irish wake.

Then he began to realise that his subject matter might not be terribly commercial.

"It was a long time in gestation," he admits of My Father's Wake. "There were a lot of rejections on the road to getting it published. Death as a literary phenomenon comes in and out of fashion. It's all part of Western death denial.

"In England, even most old aged pensioners wouldn't have seen a dead body in their lifetime. "Pictures of casualties on the news get pixelated out. You think, 'what's going on here?' when even images of the dead are 'verboten'.

"What are we protecting ourselves from?"

Indeed throughout the book, Toolis is at pains to point out that one of the best ways to prepare ourselves for dealing with the inevitable is to be exposed to death in a 'normal' way from an early age.

"A wake, the public display of a corpse and the support of your community, remains the best inoculation yet invented against the terrors of anomie," he writes.

"If you have been seeing, touching the dead since you were a child, like the cherubic little girls who played at the feet of Sonny's coffin, you will recognise something older; the very ordinary dead.

"You will know the world does not fall apart for the death of kings and presidents, fathers or mothers or your beloved child. Or you."

He makes a compelling argument.

:: My Father's Wake is out now published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. Kevin Toolis will be discussing the book at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast on October 14 as part of the Belfast Festival. Tickets £6 via

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