The Dead Nun

I was passing a convent the other day and a car load of nuns in ‘civies’ was coming down the avenue.

For some reason, the scene brought me back to another convent and other nuns ~ these ones dressed in black, black habits and veils with those white pieces blocking even a strand of hair from straying down onto their foreheads.

I was six or seven at the time and had yet to encounter death.

Innocent Me!
Innocent Me!

An announcement was made in class one morning that one of the nuns had died the previous evening and prayers were dedicated to her memory.  She must have been elderly and frail as none of us had ever seen her around school or the grounds of the convent.

Just before lunch, we were told to collect our coats from the cloakroom because we were going to the school church to ‘pay our respects’ to the nun who had died.

As we entered the church, a shudder passed down the orderly line as it transpired that the nun was laid out in an open coffin up near the altar and we were all to file past, stop, and say a little prayer for Mother X who had died.

There was no backing out, no running away, no choice. The rules had to be obeyed. I was absolutely terrified, probably not helped by the horror stories that my brother had told me about ghosts and headless horses, and my little knees were knocking as I tried to walk up the aisle.

The sight of the dead nun was even worse than my worst imaginings and left me with an absolute phobia about dead bodies, a phobia which has never left me.

My mother’s reaction to this whole affair was to go to the school and complain about us being forced to view the dead nun. The response she got was that death was natural and that it was part of our education to see dead bodies.  Mother, furious at this stage and thinking of my shivering and shaking at home, asked if it was the nuns’ policy to bring six and seven year olds along to see babies being born.

I always smile when I think of her having this exchange and her description of the absolute shock with which her question was received.

I wonder how I’d have been about ever having a baby if the nuns had followed through on her suggestion?

Author: socialbridge

I am a sociologist and writer from Ireland. I have worked as a social researcher for 30 years and have had a lifelong passion for writing. My main research interests relate to health care and I love to write both non-fiction and poetry.

32 thoughts on “The Dead Nun”

  1. Jean your picture is so cute..it’s too bad that your innocence of having to see death was put upon you and your peers at such an early age. I remember visiting a home where two elderly sisters resided and one had passed away ..it was out of curiousity that my friend and I visited the viewing. I remember the black wreath that hung on the door and it was so quiet and dark because the lights were kept dim. The lady looked like she was sleeping and because she was good to the children of the neighborhood it didn’t scare me..It was more scary approaching the home then seeing the person in repose. Also my Mom had shielded me from family passings ( I was kept at home when she had to go to a funeral), I don’t remember if I ever told her of this particular visit…Being raised in the Catholic religion some things are just too strict in the way things are done. Some of the Nuns were cruel…

    1. Hi Joni, I think the curiosity route would/might have been better. It’s difficult to know.
      I don’t know that the nuns even considered that they were being cruel, in this case anyway.

      1. I had a girlfriend who use to take piano lessons from the nuns at the convent.. There was one nun in particular who was very cruel to her..if she didn’t hold her hand correct she would slap her with a ruler on the knuckles and one time she even shoved her. Making her play the same piece over and over again until it was to her liking, bringing her to tears. I never went to her music lessons again with her..I don’t even know if she ever told her Mom about it. I was glad that I wasn’t taking music lessons from them. She went to parochial school while I went to public school.

        1. Joni, that girl wasn’t me, by any chance was it? I had a few piano lessons that fit that description perfectly. I did tell my mother and I gave up pretty quickly, never to touch a piano again!

  2. What an interesting post. Such a deep topic. Suffice to say I will be thinking about it as I write my paragraphs this morning. Thank you Jean for sharing.

    1. Hello Olga, yes, it is a deep topic in many ways. There are so many approaches to death and theories about how children should/shouldn’t be introduced to it. This approach certainly wasn’t the one for me!

  3. I think things like this experience always leave us somewhat uncertain, and particularly because we do not know at what level or how the child has experienced or even contemplated such an event. Your mother must have been both very understanding and fiercely protective to try to right that–and I have to also chuckle at what must have seemed her boldness for the day! My first experience with death, and a dead body was my great-grandmother, but she was lying in my grandmother’s living room–as was the custom then–and I was with my family who were helping me to see and understand from the perspective that a 4 year old is able to understand. That was then not a trauma for me, but it was far more difficult when the next person whom I loved died would be my 87 year old grandfather when I was 37 and I had not a clue what to do to deal with it.

    1. Suz, I think the fact that my mother was not Roman Catholic, but Protestant played a big part in her reaction to this affair. She had been raised in a very different tradition and certainly had no fear of nuns.

      I agree that the circumstances that surround deaths are key at any age and undoubtedly having a sense of empathetic support is essential.

      1. Oh, yes, that would probably do it for sure! When R’s grandfather died, our son was but a baby of around 2ish, and after we had done the visitation, I said we were going to “the church.” He piped up, “Church’s Chicken?” I allowed at that moment as how I had been negligent in his education if the only connection he had with the word church was the local fried chicken establishment. One can imagine how in Southern Baptist territory that sent shudders through all the others in the room.

  4. Wonderful photo of you & wonderful story about your mother. Dealing with deaths never gets easy. My friend’s beloved pet had cancer and it came on so fast, we were really thrown for a loop these last few days. I can’t even bear to squash the spiders in the basement, have been catching them and carrying them outside. This is useless, by the way. But speaking of squashing, the nuns would have squashed me flat.

    1. Hi Sandy, so sorry to hear about your friend’s dog. Such a horrible experience.
      Oh, I don’t know that the nuns would have squashed you. You have too much resilience for that.

  5. Hi Andrea, pretty awful alright and the fact that it’s effects have stayed with me always highlights that.
    Yes, mother was a bit of a rebel and was always great at standing her ground when she felt that she needed to.

  6. Very Irish though Jean – it was fairly common to have the body in the parlour at the wake, wasn’t it? I know nuns and priests could be callous and cruel but I suspect this was simply a misjudgment.

    1. Hi Roy, having a body in the parlour/front room is still very common here.
      As for ‘misjudgment,’ I should note that my brother was subjected to the same thing a few years before me in a different town.

      It never ceases to amaze me how so many people here in Ireland want to see dead bodies and line up at funeral homes to view the person in an open coffin. I don’t know if it happens as much elsewhere but it’s certainly something that I’m completely unable for,

        1. I put it down to the scare I got as a child. (That’s the Freudian coming out in me!)
          I don’t have huge problems being with someone when they die but it’s dead bodies after time has set in that freak me out. I prefer to remember people when they were alive and I suppose I feel that the whole ‘laying out’ thing is trying to make people who are dead look as if they are asleep using make-up and stuff.
          (I’d make an awful undertaker!)

  7. I love the idea of your mother kicking ass where others feared to tread! What an amazing woman. We’ve seen great developments since Father Ted showed priests being terrified of nuns back in the 90s. They should have had your mother on board.
    I’m still not comfortable with dead bodies but as a child it was awful. We never adhered to the open coffin tradition in my family and I just can’t get used to it.

    1. Mother would have loved you! She was way ahead of her time.
      I just take to the hills if there is even a possibility of an open coffin. I was thinking this morning about the various jobs I couldn’t do, even if I got a zillion a day for them. Undertaker and rat catcher were top of my list!

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