Cleveland Irish: Irish Dust
By Francis McGarry
We just celebrated the Feast of Saint Francis, and we are warming up for Thanksgiving; but I was just recalling we are all dust. The catalyst for that thought and corresponding thoughts was the passing of my Uncle Dennis.
A Saint Margaret Mary 1961 graduate and a Saint Joseph’s graduate in 1965, he was the captain of the tennis team there. His early life was spent in East Cleveland; his young adulthood in the Heights.
There are also some Christ the King graduates, and some Saint Philomena graduates that can be found at local taverns like the Taco Tuesday legends at Bishop and Wilson Mills or random afternoons at Mayfield and Sheffield.
After Case Western Reserve and Kent State (he was there during the shootings), my uncle found his way to Florida and played bridge for a living. That is the part of his narrative that I take the most pride in, even though I never played cards with him. Uncle Dennis had no children and that is the end of that branch of the family tree. Hopefully, that does not sound too callous. Be that as it may, it is true.
Ashes to Ashes
In 1960, when my uncle was still walking through Denison Park to get to school during the week or Mass on Sunday, only 3.6% of Americans chose cremation. The projection for 2025 is over 63% of all Americans will chose cremation and in 2040 over 78%. My Uncle Dennis chose to be cremated. I am thinking to be on the other side of the grass by 2050, but not sure on which side of the data.
In Warren, PA, the McGarry’s are all buried in adjacent graves. We traveled there to research public records and visit the cemetery. It was that trip where we made the McNally connection. Great-great-grandparents Thomas and Jane (McNally) McGarry moved to Warren to connect with her family. Genealogy and patriarchy at times make research convoluted, but Mickey and I are cousins.
At All Souls my grandparents Grace and John Francis are entombed next to each other in Section 23 with McGarry’s in all directions. All Souls opened in 1958 and has over 63,000 interments. My family is responsible for roughly 100 of those; definitely not a competition.
There are many attempted explanations as to why the increase in cremation; the Chambers or the Coynes know more than I do. What I also don’t know is how to proceed without a monument.
We visit All Souls to pay consanguineal homage, although not in the same number as the Murphy’s on Memorial Day and can walk into the mausoleum with a bottle. We know how to do that. The older kids know this is one day they can ‘have a sip of the Tully.
The kids also know that they have never met the people we are honoring. Each one of us has our own memories to share. Additionally, some of those memories are communal. Remembering entails not just the re-excitation of fixed and fragmentary traces of those dearly departed, but the imaginative reconstruction of the dust that is our dust.
A monument is intrinsically anachronistic. The world moves on and the value of the monument as an aide-memoire depends on maintaining relevance and connection. Its consciously commemorative worth prevents the past from being forgotten and disregarded. It is with these familial rituals that the monument maintains an eternal present.
Dust to Dust
“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” It was Mae Carol Jemison, not related to Charles Jamieson who hit .319 for the 1920 American League Champion Cleveland Indians or to the Jamiesons in the Heights, but the first African American woman in space who said, “Once I got into space, I was feeling very comfortable in the universe. I felt like I had a right to be anywhere in this universe; that I belonged as much as any speck of stardust; any comet, any planet.”
It is true that we are carbon, oxygen and hydrogen at the end of the day. That might make sense in the universe, but the universe is not my universe. The Cleveland universe that I live in does not routinely raise a glass to hydrogen. My cousin and I do toast to Bernardo O’Higgins when we are at the Lounge.
The World Moves On
Achilles returned the body of Hector to Priam, so that Troy, while in tears, could lay “his body on the summit of the pyre and set the wood ablaze.” It was the next day when Hector’s ashes were buried in a golden urn. They then gathered at Priam’s palace to feast. They weren’t even Irish.
The wake is one of humanity’s first rituals, existing long before trips to All Souls and to the universe (Chardon is far enough). It is through the wake, the Irish wake and all corollaries, that we begin to grieve. It is through the wake that we teach our youth and ourselves how to process the limits of our mortality and to assist others in processing theirs.
At the IACES I always felt one of the best things we did for our people was to offer the after-funeral dinner as a service, plated by gracious volunteers with a pint or two from a bartender who accepts no tips. It occurred within the community of life of which the departed was a member and served as a lesson for the living in the hope that we also desire such an honor.
Tim Finnegan had a wake. “A bottle of whiskey at his feet and a barrel of porter at his head.” My Uncle Dennis did not have a proper wake. He did not even want an obituary in the paper.
I know folks who have been working on their own obituary for years; he had his wishes and those were his wishes. It didn’t prevent me from walking through the park to what once was Saint Margaret Mary’s with my flask or including him in this article. I guess you can build a monument when you gotta. May he rest in peace.
*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is the founder of Bluestone Hibernian Charities. Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side. He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.