PASCHAL Blake still vividly remembers looking down on the body of a young child and feeling heartbroken for the family.
It’s an image that stayed with him down through the years and touched him ‘very deeply’ although emotional attachment is not something he can permit too often in his job as a funeral director in Letterkenny.
Over the past thirty years Paschal has learned to remain calm and composed while his customers are going through the biggest trauma of their lives.
In an interview with the Donegal News, Paschal spoke about what it takes to deal with death on a daily basis – and what it has taught him about life.
A native of the Cathedral town, Paschal’s background in Mental Health Nursing has proven to be a valuable asset in dealing with the various and often complex needs faced by families at what is always a difficult and trying experience for them.
For three decades, Paschal and his team have been providing end of life services to families throughout the Letterkenny area and beyond.
“You simply cannot afford to make mistakes in this business. You have to really know what you’re doing as you can’t come back next week and do it again. It’s a job that comes with its own pressures,” he said.
Over the years Paschal has seen just about every kind of circumstance of death and funeral request and he always likes to make his funerals as personal as possible.
“People make requests and we facilitate them as best we can. We might leave a photograph or some other sentimental item in the coffin. It all depends on that person’s wishes,” he said.
The funeral director has received some heart-warming requests over the years.
“One person asked to have a packet of cigarettes placed in the coffin while another man wanted his favourite drink with him after he died. Every funeral is unique and different in its own way,” he said.
“It’s all about making the service as personal as possible. Other times we’ll pass the family home on the way to the cemetery.”
While some arrangements can be much more uplifting than others, there’s one call that Paschal always dreads.
“Over the years I’ve buried some very close relatives, neighbours and friends. That’s the nature of the business. Some of them can be very difficult but the hardest thing about the job has been doing children’s funerals,” he said.
“I still remember looking down on the body of a young child and being able to identify with what that family were feeling,” he said.
Mr Blake is one of a number of funeral directors in Donegal who are on a rota system each month for public service.
“You can be called to the scene of a road traffic accident or to where someone has just taken their own life. They’re all horrific. I remember driving home one night thinking to myself that I’ll never see anything as bad as that again but, unfortunately, such is the nature of this job that invariably you do. It never gets any easier,” he said.
A former Letterkenny Town Mayor, Paschal has observed many changes in the way in which funeral services are provided as people adopt new traditions and customs.
A significant change he has noted is the increase in the number of families who choose cremation. The opening of facilities such as the Lakelands Crematorium in Cavan has made this option more readily available.
“It means that you can now have the funeral service in the morning and the cremation later than same day in Cavan whereas years ago you may have had to wait a few days between the two. It’s all very convenient which is important to families,” he said.
There has also been a move away from the traditional wake with people opting for family time and house private. Also, there has been a growing use of the Chapel of Rest and reposing overnight in churches. However, in Donegal, the wake remains a very popular tradition.
“The tradition of the three day wake – two nights with burial on the third day – remains very common but it’s all about choice and what the bereaved person wants,” he said.
He also co-ordinates the repatriation of remains from abroad home to Donegal or from Donegal to any destination world-wide.
“The increasing number of people from diverse nations resident in Donegal in recent years as well as the huge number of Donegal people who travel and work overseas has led to a definite increase in these services,” he said.
Paschal believes that the provision of a civil authority owned and maintained burial ground is one of the most pressing issues that Donegal must address.
“Currently no such facility is available and we (funeral directors) are left with the distressing task of negotiating for grieving families to secure a final resting place for their loved one.
“The provision of this facility would allow families of a non-Christian, non-religious or secular tradition to be afforded parity of esteem, dignity and respect as a very difficult time in their lives,” he said.
Despite working in often sombre surroundings, being part of the ritual of dealing with death can be rewarding for the former Letterkenny Town Mayor.
“I must admit I do get great satisfaction when someone comes up to me on the street and says ‘you did my mum’s funeral last week, I just want to say it was lovely and thanks very much’.”
Almost six years have passed since Paschal retired after 37 years service with the HSE and has had plenty of time to reflect about death.
“The older you get, the more philosophical you get. We are all going to pass away – we just don’t know the where and when.
“I don’t know what each day is going to bring and, therefore, I try to enjoy each and every day for what it’s worth. It makes you appreciate family and friends,” he said.