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Views And Reviews

Mourning our dead in the covid-19 pandemic

BMJ 2020; 369 doi: (Published 27 April 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;369:m1649

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  1. Seamus O’Mahony, retired gastroenterologist and visiting professor
  1. Centre for the Humanities and Health, King’s College London, UK
  1. seamus_omahony{at}

Covid-19 is having an impact on how we bury and mourn our dead

I came back to Ireland in 2001, after working for 14 years in the NHS. I had underestimated the re-acclimatisation involved in this move. The most striking cultural difference between Britain and Ireland is how we mourn and bury our dead. In Britain, funerals are private affairs; in Ireland they are communal events. I attended only one funeral during my 14 years living in Scotland and England; when I came back to Ireland, I found myself regularly queueing at removals.

Ritual comforts the bereaved and guides the words (“sorry for your trouble”) and behaviour of mourners. Kevin Toolis’s My Father’s Wake (2017) is a lyrical account of how the old customs are still treasured in the almost Homeric community of Achill island, off the west coast of Ireland. We Irish are famous for our wakes. Many of the rituals (and “games”) associated with wakes were pre-Christian in origin; by …

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