We’re big on funerals here in Ireland. Attending funerals is an absolute moral obligation, EVEN if you didn’t actually know the person.
Maybe you knew of them? Maybe your mother knew them? At the end of the day, it’s all about paying your respects. That’s what matters.
Personally I find it a bit hard. I am an emotional sponge. If people are upset, then I’m upset. But even for a self-confessed sponge, some vestige of self control is necessary. A wobbly chin is understandable. All out blubbering is not.
Anyway, all this is a prelude to what I really want to share with you today. It is of a somewhat sombre nature, hence the sombre preamble.
This little excerpt from the memoirs of my late Uncle Sean details a ritual that was enacted following the death of his mother ( my grandmother).
‘On January 13, 1937, my mother died. She was 47. I was 16. Three weeks later, it was arranged to give clothes to my mother that she would have in the next world. We gathered together in the field west of the house in the evening. My sister, Breda had a chair. On the chair were all my mother’s clothes. We said the fifteen decades of the rosary, the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious mysteries. We knelt on the wet grass. We each in turn had to say a decade. At the end of each decade, my sister would take a garment of my mother’s clothes, shake holy water on it and call aloud.
‘Nora Jane, Norah Jane. Come for your clothes.’
Breda would then lay the garments on a bush near us. We were very lonesome and Teddy, who was eight years old, cried the most. My sister helped him to say ‘Hail Mary’.
My Aunt Hanna of Clogherann was selected to wear my mother’s clothes. We watched her for the three Sundays she would have to wear them. We were all pleased after Mass on the third Sunday. Mother would now have clothes to wear in heaven. She would be naked no more. The brown habit she wore in the box was for this world only.’
I find this account fascinating and not only because it is a slice of family history. It’s just that I have never come across any other reference to this particular custom.
My uncle describes a dress related ritual that seems to me to be reminiscent of a much earlier time. There are elements of pre-christian ritual pervading what is ostensibly a christian ceremony. Funnily enough, this mingling of the two traditions is common enough in the history of the Irish Church. I’m sure such practices were never actually sanctioned by the church, but they were overlooked and that is part of the reason why the church flourished here.
I have thought long and hard about what it might mean.
For me, it’s about transition and how to bridge the gap into the great unknown.
Faced with the loss of a loved one, the bereaved then have to sift through that person’s various belongings. And there is no more poignant reminder of a loved one, than the clothes that they formerly wore.
I had a little mantra when it came to letting go of some of my parents belongings…things like slippers, old shoes..the sort of things that lives are cluttered with.
‘It’s just a thing…it’s not them. Losing them was the hard bit…this is easy.’
And yet it still gave me a pang of sadness to move on stuff that my mother or father had worn.
Nowadays, we tend to keep one or two mementoes and bring the rest to a charity shop. The hope being that our donation would raise a little money for a good cause.
A couple of generations ago, it was different. My Uncle Sean was chronicling a time in which people just didn’t have the same amount of stuff that we now take for granted.
In the 1930’s, kids in our area went to school barefoot. They didn’t know they were living in poverty because everyone else in the neighbourhood was doing the same thing.
In a society which has very little material wealth, people can’t afford to waste. Things have to be reused.
And yet….there is all the same angst surrounding the possessions of a loved one. The dress, or hat, or shawl worn by a woman is saturated with their essence. They are powerful emotive items.
I completely understand that it was necessary to symbolically defuse those items in order for them to be re-appropriated.
And there you have it. This sorrowful little ceremony down in the field was a way of saying …we love you mum …we miss you…. we want to do something very practical for you in the next world. We believe we are helping to sort out your wardrobe up there in heaven.
And then, knowing that we have done our best for you, it will be OK to redistribute your clothes amongst family and friends who need these things and will value them.
And that, my friends is it for fashion Friday!
See you next week.