A Matter of Life and Death
Review: Ian Malcolm
Writing a review on a biography about a funeral director is inevitably a grave undertaking as there’s the temptation to leave no headstone unturned in the search for deadpan puns.
But I shall resist, as A Matter of Life and Death, written by journalist Ivan Little, is fascinating enough without any resort to one-liners. Ian Milne certainly has a story worth sharing and his biographer does it justice.
Ian has made an intriguing journey from policeman to prison officer to peacemaker to funeral director, and each career turn has produced different challenges.
From Knocknamuckley in Co Armagh (between Lurgan and Portadown), his family’s Unionist background meant there was nothing unusual in his joining the RUC.
During the Troubles, of course, this was a dangerous career choice and he recalls some episodes which serve as a reminder of why we should all embrace our still-fragile peace and quench the idiotic notions of those who might hanker after a return to those grim days.
By his own admission, a career in the prison service was not for him; a spell running a restaurant in Cookstown was more to his taste but it was during this time that he found his true vocation as a funeral director.
The start to Ian’s business was less than encouraging, as loyalty to the existing undertakers in Portadown was strong and no-one came in through the door for the first three weeks. What did arrive, however, was a bullet through the window. It’s believed that this ricocheted off a headstone in the adjoining Seagoe Cemetery during a Loyalist target practice session.
Working in Portadown, a town where divisions run deep, Milne broke new ground by conducting funerals for people from both sides of the community, even though he knew it might mean that some Protestants would turn their backs on him for dealing with “the other side”.
Grief at losing a loved one, however, goes beyond religion. And so does humour: one day a man walked into his office and asked Ian if he buried Catholics. He replied: “Only if they’re dead.” Said the visitor, “You’ll do me.”
In the book he makes reference to some little-known differences between “Protestant” and “Catholic” funeral furniture and procedures, most notably the screws used on the coffin:
“…on a Catholic coffin you will find a crucifix, the nameplate and the Sacred Heart and there are six screws, three down each side. On Protestant coffins there is a nameplate and there are usually four screws top and bottom and to the sides. And that makes the sign of the cross.”
His sense of humour is obvious throughout the book, but he’s very serious when it comes to the question of Drumcree and the marching dispute that brought Northern Ireland to the brink in the 1990s.
He became a mediator in this volatile disagreement between the Orange Order, of which he had been a member, and the residents of Garvaghy Road in Portadown over an annual parade to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.
It was a thankless task, as so much separated the sides, but he feels that an agreement could have been reached. He speaks highly of renowned South African negotiator Brian Currin, who offered a way through the impasse but ultimately failed to win over the warring parties.
On one occasion during later mediation efforts, Ian was met by what he assumed was a “caretaker” when he went to Dublin Castle:
“He asked me if I wanted him to take down the Irish tricolour. He told me he thought I wouldn’t want to do my talk under the Irish flag. But I said that the flag was the flag of his country and I was more than happy to go ahead with my talk.”
And inside the Castle the surrealism continued when a representative of the Irish government took issue with the seating arrangements and declared that she didn’t want to sit beside Gerry Adams, a man she described as a terrorist:
“I asked her if she wanted me to sit between her and Gerry Adams, and she replied ‘please do’.”
Despite receiving death threats from both sides, Milne spent many years mediating in the Drumcree dispute and still feels that there is scope – indeed a necessity – to find a resolution, as the issue remains a potential cause of future conflict.
There’s plenty of dark humour, too. Funeral directors must take extreme caution when standing beside an open grave in wet weather – one slip and you could find yourself in the grave, with a coffin quickly following!
Then there’s his anecdote on the “alternative” Ian Milne, a former Sinn Féin MLA from Mid-Ulster. On one occasion Ian (the Protestant one) went to meet Gerry Adams on the Falls Road in Belfast and told the man on the other end of the intercom that he was Ian Milne:
“…I was greeted with a lot of Irish and I was buzzed in. But at the top of the stairs a man said ‘you’re not f****** Ian Milne’ and I countered that I was the Protestant Ian Milne from Portadown. The man laughed and said that he was in H7 with the ‘real’ Ian Milne. It was class.”
Written by an accomplished journalist, the style is light, flowing and “newsy”, which makes it a very easy read. It brings together the seriousness of Ian Milne’s mediation work and role as a funeral director with many much lighter moments and observations on the circle of life and death.
A Matter of Life and Death, by Ivan Little, is published by Cedric Wilson. Price £14.95