Above: Brenda and Charles O’Sullivan pictured at their funeral home in Clonakilty
Planning your own funeral may seem morbid but for many people, particularly those approaching old age, it can give great peace of mind. It is also a very thoughtful and practical exercise that makes things a whole lot easier for your next-of-kin.
West Cork funeral director Charles O’Sullivan tells Mary O’Brien that quite a number of people make enquiries about planning their own funeral arrangements with many calling in to the funeral homes in West Cork to give the O’Sullivan’s their wishes for safekeeping.
“I definitely feel that the older you get the more you start thinking about death,” says Charles.
Charles, who was born into the funeral home business in 1972, says that for him the job is a ‘dedication’. He’s happy to take the burden of funeral planning off the shoulders of the bereaved.
“It’s not an easy role. You’re dealing with a lot of people you know and have grown up with and there’s a lot of sadness around the work. You’re carrying people on their journey. You just try to put it aside when you’re at home with your own family.”
Charles runs the business with the help of his wife Brenda, a Scots woman. The couple, who have four children, now manage three funeral homes in West Cork, in Clonakilty, Schull and Skibbereen. “I don’t think Brenda had ever seen a dead body before she came to Clonakilty,” says Charles ruefully.
“But I couldn’t do it without her, she does so much of the work behind-the-scenes.
“Respect, dignity and care are what we’re about.
“Our goal is to create a meaningful and memorable funeral arrangement to honour the life of the recently departed. When someone passes away, you have only one chance of getting that right as an undertaker. If you get it wrong, that will always be remembered. You’re only as good as the last funeral you did,” says Charles, who has arranged up to eight funerals in one day.
Charles’ father Pat O’Sullivan, who worked in construction, bought the business off the Walsh family in 1967. Charles and his siblings were all introduced to the undertaking business at an early age. “I could have arranged a funeral at the age of 14,” says Charles, who always wanted to be involved in the family firm. “Aside from my wife and kids, who sometimes unfortunately don’t see me from one end of the week to the next, my work is everything to me.”
Over the past 50 years, the O’Sullivan family has helped thousands of grieving families lay their loved ones to rest. “As funeral directors we are there not only to carry out the wishes of the family but to guide or direct them when necessary,” says Charles.
“We usually sit down with the family and give guidance on the options available and then they make the decision.
“In all my time, I don’t think I’ve ever said to a family ‘you can’t do that’. We’ve arranged the funerals of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, agnostics… We’ve had gatherings of friends in our funeral home, joyful occasions, with music and laughter, celebrating the life of the departed. We’ve also arranged funerals without any service and with no one in attendance. There is very little we haven’t come across.”
The first question that Charles asks when contacted by the family of a deceased person is ‘has a doctor been notified?’ “Legally we can’t move a body unless the doctor or coroner gives us clearance to do so,” he explains.
The next step is deciding on the style of a funeral arrangement, whether religious or non-religious.
“If it’s a family who has never gone through the experience of planning a funeral, I’d ask them if they have they any thoughts on what they’d like to do. They might say ‘dad wanted to be buried with his father and that’s all we know’. So, in a Catholic process, we’d ask questions like ‘would your dad have liked a rosary’, ‘did he want to be laid out in a funeral home or waked at home’. ‘What church would he go to, if any’, ‘would he have preferred a mass or a service, burial or cremation or a private funeral?’ There are so many options available to the family.”
Embalming is advised but not enforced. O’Sullivans have a full-time qualified embalmer on their team.
Even when it comes to choosing a coffin, the options are far-reaching; from the traditional oak or mahogany timber casket to eco-friendly options that include water hyacinth, bamboo or seagrass. It’s even possible to be buried in a cardboard coffin printed with your favourite image.
In the last 20 years, Charles has seen a 50 per cent increase in cremation over burial. “My own wish would be to be cremated with a full Catholic service,” he says.
Urns can be purchased to keep the remains of your loved one in. It’s also possible to have cremated ash transformed into keepsake jewellery or a piece of ash can be placed into a small keepsake urn.
There are also times that a person passes away and leaves no funds to cover the cost of his or her funeral. In this instance, the Department of Social Protection may give a donation or friends or family come together to cover the cost. “We’re not going to leave anyone over ground and every person we bury gets a dignified funeral,” says Charles sincerely.
O’Sullivan’s also provides a full service of repatriation for families wishing to bring a deceased family member back to Ireland or repatriate back to their country of birth.
“It can be a slow process, which is difficult for the family, but we can delay a funeral for any length of time,” says Charles.
Charles oversees every funeral arrangement carried out by O’Sullivan’s, from planning out the route taken to the church or cemetery to the hymns that are sung at the service. He also oversees all of the headstone work, from choosing a stone to erecting it at the cemetery. All of the headstone maintenance work, from new inscriptions to restorations, is carried out by O’Sullivans.
“Everything comes through myself or Brenda and, yes, sometimes I am tearing around the countryside!”
The O’Sullivan’s have a team of dedicated and professional people behind them. “Our staff members are invaluable to us,” says Charles.
Last year was the first time that Charles and his family got away for a sun holiday. “I don’t think I’ll be left get away with not taking a break this year,” he says smiling.
“You see firsthand how people are here one day enjoying life and tomorrow they’re gone,” says Charles. “As a result, I really appreciate my family and the time I have with them.”
For more information on planning a funeral and the services provided by Pat O’Sullivans & Sons Funeral Directors and Monument Sculptors go to www.patosullivans.ie.