Joe McNamara, who has attended more than his fair share of funerals, believes firmly in their healing power. “They’re a part of life, not an annexe,” he affirms. “That’s the Irish way and the longer I’m in the business, the more certain I am that we’ve got the balance right. Up to now anyway.”
“There’s an ongoing healing power in connecting back to the community of the dead person which I feel is breaking down. People are turning more and more to grief counseling to cope.”.
Funerals are Joe McNamara’s business. As director of Corrigan and Sons, Funerals Directors, of 5 Lower Camden Street, he’s a part of an unbroken line of family involvement in a company set up by Patrick Corrigan in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Dapper, discreet and diplomatic, he’s the essence of the Corrigan and Sons ethos, respecting death, the dead and the feeling of the bereaved.
Dignity is the key. Joe McNamara carries a bowler to funerals and wears it. It’s useful when people are looking for a focus because it helps to identify me. I don’t wear it for any other reason.”
Ostentation, extremes of any kind, are not part of Corrigan/McNamara way of burial. The company uses Mercedes-Benz cars only and an E-Class hearse and the premises has an on-site chapel of rest, an embalming theatre, a garage with private parking and a reception. Coffins are, the company’s director assures, “classic and traditional.”
Joe McNamara was born into the undertaking business and is the fourth generation to run the company; he is the son of Genard McNamara, who became part of Corrigan dynasty when he married the granddaughter of the original founder.
Marriage since the very beginning has been the way of continuity and consolidation in the Corrigan firm. The company’s founder, who had a carriage business, started the trend when he married Dora Head, daughter of a Cook Street coffin maker. The combined companies made for an undertaking business which was consolidated when Dora and Patrick moved, in 1884, to the Camden Street site still occupied today.
Corrigan’s, from the beginning, brought panache and a dignified style to the business of burial. The original premises had hay, oats and coffins lofts. The stables could hold up to 30 horses and work started at 6am, when they were taken out, cleaned and fed. The role of the horse was crucial: the animal drawing the hearse wore white plumes if the deceased was unmarried, black if the person was married.
The slow move from horse-drawn vehicles to motorized ones began about the time the second generation of Corrigans, Patrick and Peter, joined their father in 1900, a time followed when Corrigan’s offered lots of choice: you could go for motors hearse and limousines to horse-drawn hearses and carriages.
Patrick Corrigan the second’s son-in-law, Gerard McNamara, joined the company in1954 and 28 years later, in 1982, his son Joe, returning from work experience in the UK as embalmer and funeral director, became a full-time employee.
So-what makes a good funeral director? “Temperament is the key.” Joe is unequivocal. “That, as well as the training and ability to understand grief and the stages it goes through-loss, denial, acceptance. You have to be able to deal with this, to understand and guide people along for their own good, because I grew up with the business, I’d an interest from an early age. You become embroiled without realising it- that’s the way things go.”
Corrigan and Sons is the undertaker for the city’s three medical schools (UCD, TCD and the Royal College of Surgeons) and take care of the burials or cremations of those who have donated their bodies to medical research.
Then there’s the embalming side of the business. Joe McNamara, with scant prodding, moves from a discussion of the art as practiced by the Egyptians some 5,000 years ago to the fact that these days “embalming is becoming more and more acceptable” and his belief that it, too “helps the healing process. And embalming means there’s less likely to be deterioration of the body of the person who has died before the funeral. People are more anxious than ever before about what death looks like, so, as an embalmer, you need to be sensitive to how a person looked in life. A photo is useful; so is a person’s own make-up, in the end, thought, it comes down simply to whether or not the family have confidence in you as an embalmer. If they’ve had any bad experiences, they don’t want to know. There’s a code of ethics around embalming which involves confidentiality and respect for the dead.”
Funerals should reflect the dead, Joe McNamara believes. “Many people, especially men, are laid out in their own clothes. Families might want particular items to go into pockets, or pictures from grandchildren or such to go into a coffin. We always co-operate.”
He also believes the dead person is “a part of the community. I would approach the funeral as an inclusive situation, a bringing together of people in healing and reconciliation.” He elaborates on his feeling that things are changing in this respect, his conviction that “there’s going to be more involvement with grief counseling. People are definitely easing away from church involvement- and not just from the Catholic Church. People are going through hoops trying to construct a service which includes healing.
“I’m not sure people have appreciated the healing power of a funeral up until now, the fact that it takes place in community, the ongoing healing power of connecting back to the community and friends of the dead person. We, as funeral directors, are embroiled in this ongoing situation and are finding ourselves with the new function, in some cases, of reintroducing people to the community when the bereaved meet once more.