My Father’s Wake by Kevin Toolis review – a brutal epiphany

As a foreign correspondent, Kevin Toolis routinely encountered death – but it was only when his father died that he truly came to terms with mortality

“Death is a whisper in the Anglo-Saxon world,” writes Kevin Toolis in My Father’s Wake. “We don’t want to see the sick, smell the decay of wizened flesh, feel the coldness of the corpse, or hear the cry of keening women. We don’t want to intrude on the dying because we don’t want to look at the mirror of our own death. Why have we lost our way with death?”

That question echoes through what is a long meditation on death, dying and our attitudes to mortality – our own and others’. As its perhaps extravagant title suggests, it is also a celebration of the traditional Irish way of mourning the dead – the three-day wake with open coffin, a constant stream of reverent visitors, and endless cups of tea and triangular sandwiches.

Toolis, an Irishman who has lived and worked in London for most of his adult life, contrasts this often transformative ritual with what he sees as the sense of collective denial that marks the Anglo-Saxon way of death. To the outsider, it does indeed often seem that the English regard death as another one of life’s myriad inconveniences, something to be dealt with as efficiently and with as little fuss as possible. Unless, of course it concerns a pet.

Toolis is angry about this cold-shouldering of death. For him, death has tended to be up close and personal. He worked for a time as a foreign correspondent on the frontline of various conflicts. In a chapter called “Fragments”, he recalls the dead he encountered in famine-ridden Sudan, at an Aids hospital in Malawi, and among the many instances of human “collateral damage” that Gaza residents have endured from Israeli bombardments. It was there, exploring a half-demolished house, that he had a brutal epiphany of sorts about his trade, and about himself. He came upon what he thought was “a bundle of rags in grey dust”, but which turned out to be the body of a child. “I felt ashamed, a ghoulish voyeur. Exposed. What could I offer in return for this death? A few words or paragraphs printed.” Brooding on the plane home, he came to another realisation: “that the fragments of things that I saw and experienced could never teach me how to live with death in my own ordinary life”.

kevin toolis and fellow children with a donkey and trap
Kevin Toolis, third from right, and other members of his family with a donkey and trap. Photograph: PR Company Handout

That ordinary life, though, is marked by death also, as every ordinary life is sooner or later. The book begins in the family house in Dookinella, County Mayo, as his father approaches death: “I was standing in the same whitewashed room where my mother, Mary Gallagher, had given birth to my brother, standing too among the watchers and where Sonny now lay dying.” Having been summoned from London, he finds himself both an insider and an outsider – “struggling to understand what the watchers see or wanted in Sonny’s death”. This is the exile’s dilemma in extremis: the sense of not belonging accompanied by the sudden, deep realisation of what has been lost along the way, without even realising it.

Another chapter, perhaps the most deeply affecting, concerns his older brother Bernard’s death from leukaemia. During Bernard’s treatment, Toolis became his brother’s bone marrow donor, his potential saviour. “Except,” he writes, “it did not happen that way.” He describes his brother’s death as “a hand grenade of rage and grief and love that went off, blasting outwards, everyone falling back, pushing us away from each other. A wound.”

These more intensely personal encounters with death and the tidal pull of capsizing grief are the moments that resonated most with me, not least because they bring home the state of utter incredulity – and unpreparedness – that a death unleashes in those close to the deceased.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion described the sense of unreality that attended the sudden death of her husband: “There was a level on which I believed that what had happened remained reversible.” With that, too, came an anger of which she had never known herself capable. Didion’s rage was directed at a society that had left her utterly unprepared for the great unmooring that is grief, and Toolis, too, has written a broadside against that collective denial. But his book is much more than that. In its alternating shifts of focus, from the intimately personal to the more journalistically detached – if the word really applies here – it lays bare the desperate numbness that accompanies that denial. In its place, Toolis posits an acceptance of the inevitable which, while it does not banish the pain of grief, invests it with a resignation and a grace that is, in essence, healing and somehow life-affirming.

His final chapter, “How to Love, Live and Die”, is a prescription for facing death: attend a wake, he advises the uninitiated, “take your kids along too if you can”. Be with the dead, he counsels; look on them, speak to them, touch them, take your time to say farewell to them.

These are words wrought from hard-won experience, yet I suspect they will fall on deaf ears in a culture geared ever more towards a kind of frantic collective escapism in the face of age as well as mortality. Time and time again, while reading I was reminded of Seamus Heaney’s great poem, Funeral Rites, which opens:

I shouldered a kind of manhood
stepping in to lift the coffins
of dead relations.
They had been laid out
in tainted rooms,
their eyelids glistening,
their dough-white hands
shackled in rosary beads.

As Toolis helps lower his father’s coffin into the ground, he writes of his own coming-to-terms with death: “I know what I had missed in failing to bind the wound of Bernard’s death and in all my death-wandering worlds. The only way to take the weight of my own mortality was through offering to take the weight of others’.”

• My Father’s Wake by Kevin Toolis is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£16.99). To order a copy for £14.44 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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