Death Brings a Community to Life

On Saturday, April 1, 1978, in the village of Brosna, County Kerry, Ireland, the burial of a local man punctuated an otherwise normal day. Tradition had it in those days that friends and relations of the deceased dug the grave. Among them on this day was Con Carey. In the early hours of the following morning, Con Carey himself was found dead, and as it was a Sunday morning, he was buried in a rather rushed fashion on Monday, April 3rd. The parish priest made the arrangements, as Con had no family to speak of.

Con Carey’s friends took the view that he had not been properly interred. Local custom of the time would have demanded a proper wake be held for mourners to keep watch or vigil over “their dead” until they were buried, and to “say a proper good-bye.” Talk soon turned to action, and the day after Con’s burial, eleven men and one woman—all friends—travelled to the neighboring parish of Mountcollins where Con had been buried.

In a profound act of respect, they set about digging up Con’s grave, removing him from the coffin, washing his body, laying him out properly and praying over him. These actions earned them the name the Twelve Apostles and the deep and enduring respect of their neighbors, all of whom would have known what had happened, given that the body was dug up in plain view during daylight hours. An investigation quickly followed, with the file sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The village folk kept quiet and so none of the Twelve Apostles were ever publicly identified. John B. Keane, the famous Irish playwright and poet, immortalized this true story in “The Ballad of Con Carey.”

Just to set some context, in the Irish countryside, in 1978, twelve people travelling three miles from one rural village to another during daylight hours would have been pretty conspicuous. People would have known what they were up to, gossip would have been rife. Digging up a dead body, buried six feet deep in a graveyard which was likely beside the church is even more conspicuous. But even if everyone had missed seeing the procession to the graveside, they could not have all overlooked the exhumation, the washing of the body and the ritual prayers, followed by Con’s reburial. Indeed, there’s a strong likelihood that some or all of vernacular liturgy was observed by the local Gardai (police) and the parish priest. Yet neither took action, nor spoke against the Twelve Apostles. Most likely for different reasons, the local constabulary was probably in support of the action taken, while the priest, whom I’m guessing felt ashamed, most likely decided discretion was the better part of valor.

There were and still are very serious taboos against disturbing a grave. Certainly, in rural Ireland in 1978, the thought that, after a parish priest had officiated over someone’s burial, unordained people would undo and redo a formal “blessed” burial would have been tantamount to sacrilege. Yet in this instance it wasn’t. Why? Because, though the details are scant and contradictory in places, what is consistent in the various versions of the story is that Con, a bachelor and popular among his neighbors, died of a heart attack on his way home from his local pub. He collapsed into a sand mound at the side of the road and lay there through the night. That night it rained heavily, and when he was found the following morning he was in a very disheveled state.

His body was subsequently placed in a wooden box, a plastic bag was placed around the Wellington boots he was wearing when he died and his face was still stained with mud and sand. He was laid out for a time in this state at the door of the community center, in a box with no lining. Soon after, he was buried. It was these circumstances that led to the events that followed, resulting in Con’s being buried twice. The first time the institutional way; the second, the community way.

The final adjudicators of the appropriateness of Con’s last rite of passage were his community, and they decided that the job had been poorly done by the priest. So, without so much as “by your leave,” they by-passed state and Canon law, and followed the natural law of the commons to give their friend the send-off he deserved. He may have had no family to speak for him, but he had his community. The villagers of Brosna were reminding their local priest that there is a way, our way, to bury our dead, and if you rush it, or displace our role within it, while we will respect the sacramental role you have played, we will re-do the community piece ourselves.

Con’s reburial was a profound and hugely courageous act of love for a friend and neighbor. I like to imagine the Twelve Apostles were buoyed up by the confidence that comes in understanding the way that things and people fit together, so as to give shape and form to each other. They knew that Con and they were interdependent, and to not bury him the right way was to throw the entire cosmos out of sync. The harmony of their lives, their seasons, the growth of their land and their future living and dying depended on that fateful and courageous act on April 4, 1978. The Twelve Apostles, in an act of institutional irreverence, committed the ultimate act of the beloved community for which every man, woman and child in their village and the neighboring village of Mountcollins was prepared to remain silent. In so doing they spoke with one voice about the power of community and who is really in charge in life and in death when a culture of strong community prevails. That day they brought death back from the institutional world into the nest of community life.

And so accordingly death brought a community to life, and consequently Con Carey could rest in peace.


Excerpted and posted by permission from Rekindling Democracy: Seeing Like a Community—A Professional’s Guide to Working in Citizen Space, by Cormac Russell (forthcoming). Copyright © 2019 Cormac Russell. All rights reserved. Home page image: Phitophylic


About the Lead Author

Cormac Russell
Cormac Russell
Cormac Russell is Managing Director of Nurture Development, Director of ABCD Europe and a faculty member of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute at Northwestern University, Chicago. He has trained communities, agencies, NGOs and governments in ABCD and other strengths-based approaches in Kenya, Rwanda, Southern Sudan, South Africa, the UK, Ireland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia. In January 2011 Cormac was appointed to the Expert Reference Group on Community Organising and Communities First, by Nick Hurd MP, Minister for Civil Society in the UK which he served on for the term of the Group. Examples of recent work include: Leading all national sporting organizations in Canada, in conjunction with the Canadian Council for Ethics in Sport, to adopt a shared vision as to how sport can become an asset for community building. This is effecting significant changes in the structures of major sporting organizations but also at a local community level in terms of community empowerment and citizen driven development. Advising I&Dea in the UK on the development of an asset based approach to health and on addressing health inequalities in low income communities as well as how an assets approach can improve community health and well-being. Partnering with Youth Work Ireland on a national program involving hundreds of youth practitioners and thousands of young citizens to develop a strong culture of youth led initiatives. Working in partnership with the University of Limerick and Atlantic Philanthropies in Ireland to infuse an ABCD approach across the entire city of Limerick. Part of this process involved organizing an entire neighborhood to address issues of loneliness, fear and intimidation and to support citizen driven development. The long-term vision is of a city that puts citizens and communities in the driving seat, through processes of neighborhood organizing and bottom up planning and where services are organized in the way in which community is organized. 

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