Geraldine’s death and Funeral

It is now two weeks since my sister Geraldine Flannery succumbed to the debilitating effects of a long standing heart condition, and died quietly and apparently easily. I don’t know if this is the case for others in relation to family members, but for me I tended to take Geraldine a bit for granted. We were close, and we shared a lot in the course of our lives, especially in the latter years, but closeness can prevent one from fully appreciating the special qualities of a person. She spent the first half of her adult life as a Mercy sister, in Ballinrobe and Tuam. She had a Batchelor of Commerce degree from Galway, but mainly she taught catechetics at second level, particularly after she had attended the year long course in Mount Oliver, which at the time was the leading light in catechetical training.

Her heart condition showed itself in her late thirties, resulting in open heart surgery. Recovery was prolonged and difficult, until someone pointed her in the direction of acupuncture. She found so much benefit from this that eventually she decided to train, and became a Practitioner of Chinese Medicine. By the early nineteen nineties she had set up an acupuncture practice, and had been dispensed from her religious vows.  The rest of her life was spent practicing alternative medicine, mostly in her own house fom which she operated two clinics.  

During the days of the funeral I listened to a great number of people telling me what Geraldine had meant to them. It wasn’t just that she was very good at her work – I knew that for myself – but she seems to have had the ability to listen and understand people in such a deep way that they found it very healing. A great many of her patients learned to love her, and considered her a close and dear friend.

Geraldine often spoke to me about her dying and her funeral. She knew well that in a real sense, due to her medical condition, she had lived beyond her time, and she was well aware that the end was coming. One thing she insisted on, many times, was that I was to celebrate the funeral Mass when she died. I promised her that I would. I knew that it could be complicated since I was no longer allowed to minister publicly as a priest. But I was more relaxed by my experience of my brother Peter’s death in Limerick last November, when the Church authorities had no problem with me celebrating his funeral Mass.

Shortly before Geraldine died, when it was obvious that she had only hours left, I contacted the administrator of the Cathedral in Tuam, alerting him to the situation, and asking him to check with Archbishop Neary if it would be all right for me to celebrate Geraldine’s funeral mass in the Cathedral in Tuam which was her home parish. I got a call back from the administrator the following morning, ironically just minutes before Geraldine died, that the answer was No. It was not an easy situation for the Administrator who exercised much courtesy during the funeral days.  

After that initial setback we quickly set about implementing an alternative plan. We were helped by the fact that the weather was beautiful, and her house had a conservatory with a glass surround facing out into the lawn. We had the funeral there, with the coffin in the conservatory, a small table for the altar behind it, and the people gathered in the lawn with a clear view of the proceedings and a speaker for sound. It was also live-streamed, and is still available on YouTube. It worked perfectly, having an intimacy and a warmth that would have been impossible in a large, mainly empty, cathedral. I know Geraldine would have approved. It was in a sense a throwback to the house Eucharists of the early centuries of the Church, and maybe also pointing to a future way of celebrating Mass that might be more meaningful to the modern believer.

I don’t know Archbishop Neary well, but the few times I met him he seemed to be friendly. I have got used, over the past ten years, to the way the official Church closes the doors on people like myself, so, though I was disappointed and somewhat hurt at his refusal, I was not particularly surprised. What really disappointed me was the fact that the archbishop made no effort to contact me personally. Geraldine had spent forty years of her life in Tuam diocese, and I believe she had contributed considerably to the parish and the town through her years as a catechist and a healer. For the archbishop to send such a blunt message through an intermediary, and not even a word of sympathy, was I think quite extraordinary. It displayed a lack of ordinary human compassion that I have experienced in a number of other high up officials in the Church in these last years, where the rules and regulations, the Canon Law, becomes more important than the person.

On the other hand I must emphasise that the two priests in the parish, Pat and Sean, were both gracious and supportive. I really appreciated that, and I understood the difficult position in which they found themselves.  

Despite the response, or lack of response from the Archbishop, I now tell myself that the important thing is that Geraldine’s funeral was a positive experience for those who attended, both in person and on line.  Her friends, neighbours and those who loved her, had time to gather with her two remaining siblings, Frank and myself, and that gathering took place in the warm confines of her house.  We were able to say our farewell to her as she departed to what she firmly believed would be a new life in the heart of the Divine Mystery, an eternal life which she had already come to recognise during her time on this earth.