Comment Opinion & Features

From marriage to death, our rites are being reinvented

A hen party in Aintree: a modern form of carnival.

I am made aware that we are coming up to the wedding season by the visibility of the hen party. Exactly when these parties – or pre-wedding jollifications for the bride – became a wedding tradition I cannot say, but it has certainly taken hold as a contemporary rite of passage.

Last weekend, I was standing in a queue at Dublin Airport, when, in a parallel queue, there were about eight young-ish women likely bound for some sunny clime on a hen party weekend.

They were dressed alike in black T-shirts with gold lettering and black mini-skirts or jeans – save for the bride-to-be, who was wearing a white mini-skirt, skimpy top and white veil, with “Future Mrs Jones” inscribed on the headdress.

They were all adorned in heavy make-up, fake tans, false eyelashes, and long, fake fingernails, evidently modelled on the reality TV star Kim Kardashian. These lasses were exuberant, but not ill-behaved, even if hen parties (like stag parties) have a reputation for deteriorating into a raucous knees-up. There are strong suspicions that, on reaching a destination (Tenerife? Barcelona? Budapest?), much inebriation may follow.

I glimpse hen party groups in our town, too, sitting in the local Wetherspoons, ready for their festivities, future bride in veiled white.

The hen party celebration is often arranged and marketed with promises of lavish alcohol, but there are also wholesome activities open to hens: spa weekends, life-drawing classes, cookery workshops, shooting lessons in Prague, surfing in Newquay…

The ritual is not to everyone’s taste, though. “How would you like to be going away on a hen party weekend?” I whispered to the female security officer at the airport.

“Complete nightmare!” she grimaced, discreetly.

Yet I think there’s a welcome aspect to hens. It does, at least, celebrate marriage, with the underlying theme that the bride is the “future Mrs Jones”, even if that’s meant half-ironically. And in a workaday world where we have lost sight of the tradition of “carnival”, it introduces a new – or even perhaps reinvented – rite of passage to life events. (In medieval times, didn’t the Church sanction Lord of Misrule festivities?)

The differentiation between “hen” and “stag” also indicates that we have not yet arrived at a “gender neutral” state: girls and boys still spontaneously evolve their own revels.

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From marriage to divorce: Ireland faces a fresh divorce referendum on May 24, which has been marked by a staggering indifference. The referendum will ask the voting public if the waiting time for marriage dissolution should be reduced from four years to two.

Wedlock is becoming a smorgasbord of choices: you can have church marriage, civil marriage, and civil unions that are contractual relationships which avoid any “patriarchal” overtones. Others choose non-marital cohabitation, for which they claim equal status with matrimony. A new phenomenon is “sologamy” – marriage to yourself.

With every choice of union available, I suppose it’s inevitable that the bonds of matrimony may be loosened even more. In Britain, divorce reform will soon mean a spouse can be divorced against her, or his, will. This used to be called abandonment.

Ireland may well vote for more liberal divorce, since it is now considered “cruel” to ask spouses to wait. I have one caveat: if easier divorce means that land is more likely to be divided up, this may, in a culture obsessed with property possession, cause people to think twice.

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Funeral rites, too, are changing. The Irish practice of the “removal” – that is, the removal of the body from home to church on the evening before the funeral Mass – is now declining. Possibly because fewer people die at home.

In John McGahern’s superb short story describing an Irish wake – The Country Funeral – the author observes many more people attending the “Removal”, where prayers are said, than the actual morning Mass. He also describes how, once the person dies, the corpse (or “remains”) is kept at home until the Removal, and is never left alone. All the clocks in the house are stopped.

The Country Funeral, originally published in 1992, is a deeply affecting story around one family, in a new series of stand-alone short stories published by Faber (at £3.50). Other authors include Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’Connor and Edna O’Brien. Highly recommended.

Follow Mary Kenny on Twitter: @MaryKenny4