Death is a community affair: Con Carey and the Twelve Apostles
On Saturday April 1st 1978 in the Irish village of Brosna, Co. Kerry, a burial of a local man punctuated an otherwise normal day. Tradition had it in those days that friends and relations of the man and his family dug the grave. Among them was Con Carey. In the early hours of the following morning, Con Carey was found dead, and as it was a Sunday morning, he was buried in a rather rushed fashion on Monday, April 3rd. His friends took the view that he was not properly interred. Local custom of the time would have demanded a proper ‘wake’ be held for mourners to keep watch or vigil over their dead until they were buried, and to say a ‘proper good-bye’.
Talk soon turned to action, and the day after Con’s burial, 11 men and one woman -all friends- travelled to the neighbouring parish of Mountcollins where Con had been buried. In a profound act of respect, they set about digging up Con’s grave, removing him from the coffin, washing his body, laying him out properly and praying over him. These actions earned them the name the ‘Twelve Apostles’ and the respect of their neighbours, who would have known what had happened, given that the body was dug up in plain view during daylight hours.
An investigation quickly followed – with a file sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The village folk kept quiet and so none of the ‘Twelve Apostles were ever publicly identified.
John B. Keane the famous Irish Play writer and poet immortalised the story in the ‘Ballad of Con Carey’: The Lyrics of ‘The Ballad of Con Carey’ by John B. Keane.
Just to set some context, 12 people travelling three miles from one rural village to another during daylight hours would have been pretty conspicuous. People would have known what they were up to. Digging up a dead body, buried six feet deep in a grave yard which was likely beside the church is even more conspicuous again; but even if everyone missed their procession to the graveside and the resulting exhumation, the washing of and the ritual of appropriately interring the body, followed by its reburial, must have been observed if not reported to the local Gardai (Police) and the Parish Priest. Yet neither took action, nor spoke against the 12. Probably for different reasons, the local constabulary was probably in support of the action taken, while the Priest whom I’m guessing felt ashamed, most likely decided discretion was the better part of valour.
There are very serious taboos against disturbing a grave. Certainly in rural Ireland in 1978, the thought that after a Parish Priest had officiated over the burial of someone, that unordained people would undo and redo a formal ‘blessed’ burial would have been tantamount to sacrilege. Yet in this instance it wasn’t. The final adjudicators of the rightness of Con’s last rite of passage were his community, and they decided that the job was half done. So without so much as ‘by your leave’, they by-passed state and Canon law, and followed the natural law of common sense, to give their friend the send off he deserved.
Illich reminds us throughout his writings that the pre-modern world and its societies were practiced in the art of suffering; each culture had ways of making sense of existence and of engaging with the limits of the human condition including death.
He also pointed out that service systems make a habit of promising to overcome the human condition, and to leap frog the given limits it presents us with: to cheat death, or at least to fight it back till the bitter end:
“Ethics, in a strong tradition from Aristotle to Mandeville, involved a public controversy about the good to be pursued within a human condition and perhaps grudgingly accepted. Economics, however, demands the evaluation of desirable goals under the assumption of scarcity. It deals in the optimization of values, this leads to the creation of modern economic society, which provides seemingly unlimited fuel for technological civilization. Such a civilization attempts to transform the human condition rather than debate the nature of the human good.”
(Illich on ‘The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr’, Schumacher Lecture, 1994)
When the focus is on deliberating about ‘the human good’, and not overcoming the fallibilities of the human condition, it becomes abundantly clear how to be in appropriate relationship with each other as human beings. When, however, we loose sight of what Illich termed proportionality, and engage in the mindless following of rules, or inane attempts to maximize efficiency, we fall out of right relationship with the living and the dead. That’s what the villagers of Brosna were reminding their local priest, there is a way, our way to bury our dead, and if you rush it, or displace our role within it, while we will respect the sacramental role you have played, we will re-do the community piece ourselves.
This was a profound and hugely courageous act of love for a friend. But they were buoyed up by the confidence that comes in understanding the way that things and people fit together, so as to give shape and form to each other. They knew that Con and they were interdependent, and to not bury him the right way was to throw the entire cosmos out of sync. The harmony of their lives, their seasons, the growth of their land and their future living and dying depended on that fateful act on April 4th, 1978. The 12 Apostles, in an act of institutional irreverence, committed the ultimate act of community reverence for which every man, women and child in their village and the neighbouring village of Mountcollins was prepared to remain silent. In so doing they spoke with one voice about the power of community and who is really in charge in life and in death when a culture of strong community prevails.
And so accordingly death brought a community to life; and consequently Con Carey could rest in peace.