A Feature Review of
My Father’s Wake:
How the Irish Teach Us How to Live, Love and Die
Reviewed by Cynthia Beach
Syntax and word, rhythm and rite roll and surge in this tribute to a wordsmith’s dying father, Sonny—and to the neglected Irish practice of “waking the dead.”
Journalist and filmmaker Kevin Toolis confronts our cultural death denial and the “Western Death Machine.” He says, “Death is a whisper in the Anglo-Saxon world. Instinctively we feel we should dim the lights, lower our voices and draw the screens. We want to give the dead, the dying, the grieving, room.”
In other words, we don’t want to address the fact of death. How important is a book about death? Well, Toolis suggests, rather vital. “If you breathe,” he says, “you die.”
He cuts through our lipid excuses like “What could we say anyway” or “Whatever you do, don’t mention the word ‘cancer.’” Ignoring another’s mortality, he notices, is really ignoring our own.
This lament becomes the book’s spine question: “Why have we lost our way with death?” And as relentless as the Atlantic he artfully describes, Toolis answers.
Statistically we say that we want to die at home. However, we don’t. Instead, we become part of the Western Death Machine, a system that pushes the ill and dying out of view and uses medicines to ease the passage to death. Think of the number of quiet morphine overdoses administered by the hands of very kind hospice staff.
Toolis inventories his life as an Irish foreign correspondent who grew up in Edinburgh. He examines a collection of exhibits: his tuberculosis at 11 where he literally was near death in a ward for terminal cancer patients, his brother’s death from leukemia, his reporting on international death that includes starvation in the Sudan and AIDS in Malawi, and so on.
His brother’s death. Here he aptly captures the cataclysmic before and after of a loved one’s death. How in the “after” our definition of all things radically alters. He writes this about the impact on his family: “Bernard’s death was a hand grenade of rage and grief and love that went off, blasting outwards, everyone falling back, pushing us away from each other.” He catches well how grief can separate.
The early chapter “Ruin” is another death—the near-death of the family home in Dookinella Achill that Sonny, his father, abandons for the sake of earning a living. Their return year after year checks the creeping ruination: the mold to the wood lice. Sonny’s determined labor each summer saves the house unlike the ones fallen into the rubble of the deserted village. He began to understand what the rubble from another generation had to say—the cycle of the generations. That everything ends. “Every born soul,” he writes, “is long scattered into the wind across the earth.”
In other chapters, Toolis returns to the Western Death Machine to deconstruct it. Case in point, his mother’s sudden death at 64. Away from the island practices, his father had one hour to come into the house and find Mary dead on the couch, to watch the ambulance workers perform CPR and then give way when they legally needed to take Mary’s body to the morgue. An autopsy further delayed the family’s ability to see her. Unlike the Irish wake, the Western way whisks away and hides. “Death in the West is a closed door on a closed room in a closed world.”
Toolis applies his journalistic commitment to witness when he lifts the curtain on what happens at the morgue. This detailed section, while not for the faint of heart, is worth knowing. I found myself joining his chorus of “Why?” Is it anything more than a business?
The antidote to the Western Death Machine, he found, was island death practices. The islanders on Dookinella Achill bend to observance. Their death practice is something more than sitting at an extended light because a Hearst and its caravan are slowly passing. The island radio lists all who died that day—three times a day. The islanders then attend the wake or drive up the Maun, the island’s highest point, to wait by the road for the coffin to pass. Life and plans are interrupted by this ritual. What better practice for death is that?
In death practices, Toolis also recalls how when he was seven, his mother took him to his first wake and coached him how to overcome his fear of the dead by touching them with respect or love.
And the wake itself. Beautiful, I thought. This ancient practice even shows up in the Iliad, Toolis writes. To wake the dying—yes, the word also appears as a verb—means to visit the ill and talk and to say goodbye and touch the person; and then after the death, the keening, the carrying the body and the feast. The wake, I learned, is a community process, a journey. Toolis recounts well Sonny’s wake and how it calibrated his death encounters and fatigue.
Sonny’s wake takes place on Dookinella Achill, Ireland’s largest island, off the westward edge of County Mayo. Population has sunk to approximately 2700 and, economy, to two hotels, so says Wikipedia. Google pictures show a wide collar of stony gray shoreline touching the Atlantic. Behind shore sweeps the green and lovely Irish countryside.
Author Kevin Toolis has been an active storyteller through diverse mediums: newspaper and film. He’s been a frequent contributor to the likes of The New York Times Magazine and The Guardian. He founded Many Rivers Films, an indie production company that won a BAFTA for Complicit (2014). He has written extensively about the Irish Troubles.
My Father’s Wake is a worthy read—a weighty one too. Do we not see, talk, live death? I do, I argued at times, reading this charge. Eight years separate Dave and me, and at the table, I inventory his gray hair and lines. I watch the skin over my own knuckles collect blemishes. And I listen with spiritual soberness to “Spiegel im Spiegel.”
On this side of things? We do not have forever.
Cynthia Beach is a long-time writing professor at Cornerstone University, whose contributions appear in Hope in the Mourning Bible (Zondervan) and The Horse of My Heart (Revell). She co-founded the two-day Breathe Christian Writers Conference. Currently, she’s marketing her novel, The Passion of Matthew Goodman and indie publishing Creative Juices: The Practical-Quirky Guide to Craft & Creativity.