March 01, 2018


My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love, and Die. By Kevin Toolis. Da Capo. $26.

     It has long been fashionable to argue that urbanization and industrialization have moved us farther and farther away from an imagined purity of the past, a time of “noble savage” living when humans were closer to the land, to each other, and to the things that really matter in life. Kevin Toolis’ version of the Rousseau myth would include being closer to death. Of course, people really were closer to and more involved with death in the past: very large families were a necessity because so many children died very young and so many mothers died bearing them, and the absence of modern medicines meant that lifespans were generally very short even when people did make it to adulthood. But facing things from that perspective is not what purveyors of past purity do. Instead, they select small elements of the past that seem desirable and wonder why we have “fallen away” from those things and whether we can get back to them – inevitably ignoring the reality that certain events, customs, experiences and expectations were intimately bound up with the overall ethos of a particular time and, often, a particular place; it is simply impossible to extract one specific element of the past, declare it desirable, and act as if it was not interdependent with many other elements that would be declared undesirable. Do we want more people dying at home, surrounded by family, accepting an intimacy with death that we have largely lost in modern industrialized countries, if that also means giving up antibiotics and accepting enormously higher rates of infant and maternal death?

     Of course, Toolis, a journalist and filmmaker, does not want this – he wants to return to the past entirely selectively. And he wants readers of My Father’s Wake to share his own fascination with death and willingness to interact with the dead with a level of intensity that borders on addiction. This is not overstating the case: Toolis specifically writes that he “needed the shock of death like a drug, an inoculation, to protect myself from everything I saw and felt in my own life.” And he has seen and felt quite a lot: as a child, he was a patient in a tuberculosis ward; he experienced his brother’s early death from cancer; his mother died suddenly from a heart attack; and somehow Toolis took these and other death-related experiences on a level so personal that he has made a career out of visiting troubled areas worldwide and exploring in detail the many ways people deal death to one another. He has covered Arab-Israeli fighting, North African fighting, Northern Ireland fighting (the Troubles), and more. And the intensity of his involvement with death and the dead borders on the pornographic: he visits a morgue and writes of the “terrible beauty in the sawing apart, the blood and guts, the engorged flooded lungs” and “the reddish cod roe brain.”

     Toolis presents his various anecdotes and descriptions of death in the overall context not of a specifically Irish alternative, despite the book’s subtitle, but in the context of a rural, old-fashioned Irish alternative, as still practiced on the island of Achill, where Toolis’ father and mother were both born (Toolis himself was born in Edinburgh). Toolis makes My Father’s Wake partly a memoir, partly a plea for better understanding and acceptance of death, partly an argument for a purer and more family-oriented handling of the approach of the end of life – a ritual that is quite different, at least as practiced on Achill and presented here, from what popular culture thinks an “Irish wake” is all about. Toolis is at his best when bringing his journalist’s observational capability to heartrending scenes involving the dead, as when a young woman from Mali buries her infant after first removing a bracelet from the child’s wrist. He is less effective when asking readers to share the intimacy he had with his father through the Achill culture, because the highly personal nature of the men’s relationship and the importance to it of the island’s stuck-in-an-earlier-time life make it difficult for strangers and non-islanders to absorb the full effect of Toolis’ experience. He is least effective when arguing that the specifics of death the Achill way are better, more meaningful and more connected with life than the specifics of death as experienced elsewhere, though they certainly carry greater meaning than death mediated by institutions such as hospitals, where the only bystanders tend to be machines. “We need to find our way again with death,” Toolis argues, pointing out that for thousands of years, people handled death in private ways that he says are more dignified and provide more closure than First World deaths today. And he is quite correct: as infants, young children, young adults, and “old” people in their 40s perished from tuberculosis, poor sanitation, dropsy, urban malaria and smallpox, the survivors developed an intimate relationship with death that goes well beyond what most people in the First World have today. Toolis is so enamored of the imagined purity of death rituals in the past that he seems blissfully oblivious to the possibility that there was nothing healthy, fulfilling or noble in death seen so closely, so frequently and in so many forms – indeed, that there was much about it that was savage.

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