Celebrating a person's life is all about... timing

In Ireland we have an ambivalent approach to death.

Before it happens we are defensive and guarded, and denial is our most popular coping mechanism. But after death (if it's somebody else's) our attitude changes radically, and we have what is known as a wake, a triumphant ceremony celebrating life in the face of death, an acceptance that death is a fitting end to what was a good story and a tale well worth the telling. The death of a child or a young adult is never fair, never right, but for older people a wake can be a kind of posthumous This Is Your Life, and merriment and devilment of all kinds can ensue as we trade stories through the night about the deceased and their exploits. Sometimes, however, this laudable tradition can go too far.

A great old patient of mine was dying recently and I told his wife that he might not last till morning, promising that I would come back to put him down for the night. When I returned I had to park over a mile away up the boreen, such was the throng. Passing the kitchen I felt a blast of wild fiddle music, whiskey fumes, and boisterous laughter that nearly knocked me flat. There was even a 'fat lady singing', usually concrete evidence that death has occurred.

But on entering the bedroom, I found, not a coffin and a corpse, but a very-much-alive patient. I could tell he wasn't dead; he looked too sick and old, the undertaker hadn't a chance to touch him up yet. I'll not pretend he was chirpy or singing along, but there was no sign that the hubbub was distressing him.

His wife explained that it had not been planned, but had just... happened; one or two neighbours had heard a rumour and drifted in, then one or two more had seen them drifting in, and soon the rush had become unstoppable. This was not a sign of malign intent; it's just what neighbours do in Ireland, especially if there's nothing good on TV.

Using the full authority of our ancient profession, I shushed the crowd, smashed the fiddle, poured the whiskey down the sink, and stuffed a cream bun in the fat lady's mouth, allowing my friend a few quiet moments alone with his family. When I returned to the kitchen a few minutes later a respectful silence still prevailed. "How is he doctor?" inquired a voice from the back.

"You thought it was all over," I said, the words rising unbidden, "It is - now."

Dr Farrell is a GP from County Armagh. Email him at GPcolumnists@haymarket.com

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