Dr Kevin Myers
“Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.” Penned by John Donne, this sonnet verse proclaims man’s attempt to face the inevitability of death without fear. It is a cultural tool used to undercut death, a way to symbolically defend against the biological certainty contained in our mortal nature.
This theme of battling and rectifying fear of death is perhaps as old as man. We are mortal, we are aware that we are mortal and in the face of this, we look for meaning, guidance and answers to fundamental questions that permeate our mortal existence. One such question asks, what, if anything happens to us after we die?
Throughout history, man has tried many ways to answer this question. It is true to say that avoidance has been and still remains a chief weapon. Death for many is marginalised to the corner of one’s mind.
Others talk of death only in those times when you simply cannot avoid it, with the passing of a loved one, family friend or even beloved family pet. Then we are reminded of an inalienable truth, we have only a limited time on this earth, we have at best a few decades on life’s stage and one way or another, whatever way we do speak of death, it is death that will have the last word.
Facing the void: culture and religion
So with this in mind, how have people, both now and in the past coped with this knowledge of their inevitable demise? Where did and do they source meaning in the face of death and loss? In many ways here, culture becomes key and within that religious or spiritual belief offer answers.
Religion has historically, and for many, still continues to offer the greatest hope. We often find solace in the transcendent. A large variety of religious beliefs accomplish this by declaring to followers that they will survive death, they can in fact live on, although in another form, following biological demise.
More than that, various forms of religious theology tell followers that they will be with God in the next life, and perhaps more importantly for some, they will also be reunited with those whom they love, those that have gone before us.
Christianity is one such religion. Often referred to as a ‘salvationary religion’, that is to say a religious tradition that offers belief in life after death, Christians, particularly Catholics, are told that if they live their lives in accordance with the teachings of their faith, Heaven awaits.
This comes with a cautionary clause however. If they wander from the path of Church’s ethical teaching and do not repent before death, then Hell awaits. For Catholics however, there is a middle ground: you may not have lived a perfect life, but Heaven can still be yours.
There is a pit-stop along the way. I’m referring of course to Purgatory, a place where the souls of the dead suffer until their life’s transgressions are absolved. While Protestant theology has long abandoned belief in Purgatory, within Catholicism the living can work to move the dead forward.
By offering Masses for the dead and through prayer, followers can intercede for their departed loved ones and assist in their post-mortem salvation.
Here the Catholic Church has long been the essential gatekeeper between the living and their dead.
Let us look at Ireland
Many countries have strong religious traditions rooted in their cultural heritage. For Ireland, Catholicism has historically held pride of place within our societal and cultural lives.
From the Famine period onwards (1845-1849), the Catholic Church has dominated how the Irish see death, understand its meaning, its significance and most importantly, provides answers to this great mystery in life, what happens after we die?
The Church offers its follows a type of ethical guidebook, a road map if you will, instructing them how they can achieve salvation. Living a good life, and as such becoming a good Catholic, is the only path to hereafter.
Throughout the 20th Century, it would appear that the Catholic Church has dominated Irish belief in life after death. Studies, such as that carried out by a sociologist, Maire Nic Ghiolla Phadraig (1976) showed high levels of belief in God, Heaven and belief in life after death life.
Such findings also reflect a strong adherence to Church teachings on moral issues. The two seemed to be intrinsically-linked.
On the state level, Ireland is also interesting when we consider our constitutional provision, that any amendments made to our constitution must be put to the public vote.
In moral matters surrounding divorce and abortion, debated during the 20th Century, we see that from the results of related referendums, the Irish typically voted with a conservative conscience.
Although divorce was legalised in 1995, the motion was barely carried, and in doing so following a second referendum on the matter.
However, things are not as they were. And within Irish life, the Church is not what it was. But to understand the current position of the Church in relation to attitudes to mortality, we have to look at the position and decline of Church influence within Ireland from the 1980s onward.
Throughout much of the 20th Century, Ireland could be characterised as a traditional, agrarian and perhaps a closed-off society.
Within such a place, the Catholic Church was the moral, social and cultural orchestra through which ethical belief on many issues, often associated with the promise of salvation, were sung loudest.
However, with the development and advance of the media within the late 20th Century, allied with the development of processes of individualism, globalisation and the related development of increasingly complex communication technologies, the Church has arguably lost its central position as the chief moral orchestra in relation to morality and mortality.
Where once it held pride of place as a societal power, it now is but a voice in an increasingly multicultural choir.
Where does this leave the Irish in relation to contemporary attitudes towards death and salvation? Do the Irish believe in Heaven as much as they once did? If so, what role does the Church play in shaping such belief, in guiding its followers to salvation? Indeed, if belief remains high, how are Irish people to get there?
Recent studies have suggested that indeed Irish belief in life after death remains strong.
In a paper drawing on data from the European Social Survey Round Four, produced by the Bishops’ Conference, that examined practice and belief among Catholic in the Republic, Eoin O’Mahony (2011) outlines how when questioned on belief in life after death, 43% of respondants reported ‘yes, definitely’, while a further 39% reported ‘yes, probably’.
Combined, this figure suggests that belief in life after death for Irish Catholics, stands at approximately 82%. While these figures draw on data collected in 2009/2010, the 2011 Census reported that 86% of Irish people identified as Catholic (althought there may be significant variation in what the term Catholic means to respondants).
Yet moral beliefs seem to have shifted. To illustrate this we can look at the outcomes of Irish referendums on moral issues, particularly with reference to two constitutional changes relating to marriage. Returning to the 1995 divorce referendum, this was passed by the slightest of margins.
However, 20 years on, the once unimaginable issue of same-sex marriage passed comfortably with 62.1% of the popular vote. What can this tell us? Certainly the inevitably of death is as fundamental as ever, but seemingly popular belief in achieving life after death through enacting the moral teachings of the Church has gone into decline.
As Eoin O’Mahony outlines, a significant majority of Irish people believe in an afterlife. However, what seems to have occurred is that in large numbers, Irish people no longer link these two elements, personal mortality and Catholic morality, the Church and personal salvation. The Irish seem to continue in large numbers to believe in Heaven, but, for many, the Church is no longer the only path to that salvation.
There seems to be many paths to Heaven or life after death. But so too are the methods of achieving it. While once Irish Catholics took it for granted that St Peter guarded the gates of Heaven, now he may have to cut several spare copies of his eschatological keys.
Individualism and the media
What has occurred in modern Ireland to bring about this shift and how do people in todays Ireland create meaning and source answers to these very same questions? After all the problem of death remains, we are here and we know our time is limited.
It would appear that two key elements, among others have changed both our understandings of death and more importantly perhaps for the Church, how we approach it. Ireland, once communal in character, has become more like our western neighbours, individualistic. The ‘I’ has come to dominate the ‘we’.
The many consequences of this shift are for another piece, however it is enough to say here that Irish people are increasingly making up their own mind about death, and how to achieve and conceive of salvation. So where does the ‘I’ source this meaning?
It is true that the Irish find meaning from a variety of sources, old folklore heritage, pagan belief (even if they are not aware of there origins) and of course from the Church.
But we can say with a relative degree of certainty, it is fundamentally through the media that the Irish now source solace and meaning. The media has opened up Ireland to a world of choice.
It has fractured the once steel frame of Catholic understandings and offered people a way to see death anew.
What has occurred, as with many other nations, is that Irish people have begun to shop in the supermarket of religious, spiritual and secular beliefs, picking and choosing from the variety of cultural meanings on offer, to create an understanding of death this is both personal and individualistic.
In generating understandings of death, if the Church was once the only shop in town, it is now just an aisle in a store.
This of course is a problematic matter. It is often said that there is no such thing as an atheist on a deathbed. Not true. It is people who are certain either way that lie comfortably before the abyss.
Whether a devout believer or a devout atheist, certainty alleviates anxiety. Perhaps it is the great many who occupy the centre ground, that mostly believe, but who are not sure, that fear the unknown with the greatest trepidation.
So what of the future? What of death moving forward and what is the place of the Church in Ireland in relation to death? From my own personal research, it appears that the Church remains an important ingredient in understanding death.
After speaking with several hospital chaplains, both lay and religious, funeral service personnel and Catholic priests, it would seem that the majority of Irish people still resource Catholicism in bringing meaning to death.
After surveying a large sample of Irish people, it would appear that traditional post-death practices and commemoration ceremonies remain popular.
Catholic funeral services, although contested by those involved, remain extremely popular.
Whereas alternative secular Humanist wedding services have begun to increase massively in numbers, funeral services have not. In 2015 the Humanist Association of Ireland conducted 1,280 wedding services, however only 97 funeral services.
This was a decrease from 121 from the year previous. The Church as a source of moral guidance has arguably declined, but in relation to understandings of death, it continues to hold its own.
In an Ireland that has transformed rapidly in recent decades, the Church may have retreated to the periphery within many matters of social life, however with matters relating to death, it continues to hold pride of place, albeit not alone, at the centre of our understandings.
Dr Kevin Myers is a writer and a sociologist. His research interests include examining issues surrounding culture, religion, meaning, death, dying and bereavement.