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Allister Mallon - photoALLISTER MALLON

Post-conflict Northern Ireland society has assuredly tempered its dependent relationship with the church and formal religious practice. Notwithstanding life in a rapidly changing, post religious and ‘nihilistic age’, today’s generation continues to dramatise its existential problems in compulsive ritual and, whilst the urgency to immerse family and community in funerary ritual practice remains intact, the symbolism deployed often pronounces something new, consumerist and counter cultural. 

Conservative forces today such as church and political parties continue to insist on their role in preserving Northern Ireland from the chaos of the 'Troubles' in the latter years of the 20th century. Nevertheless, it was in this period that a generation relaxed its ties with the churches and pledged its commitment to lifestyle choices celebrated in the modern media. Television and print media presented choices available to a public who tired of what they perceived as moral and cultural totalitarianism in Ireland. In retrospect, the modern media had usurped the authority of the churches, effectively instructing and guiding the Northern Ireland population in matters of social and political affairs. Commentators on the television and print media had a wider audience and indeed a greater influence over public opinion than the churches. Audaciously, the powers that controlled the media in the period of 'Troubles' permeated the popular conscience with instructions on how to grieve and preserve our dignity in the midst of chaos, comforting the viewer with chosen reports of the newest funerary spectacle, presenting in shadows of grey and black choreography and imagery which spoke of order and stoicism. Church buildings seemingly provided mere backdrops in the public arena where silence had an impact greater than the liturgy. These ritualistic performances functioned as a social mechanism which informed that the audience of the boundaries of care and of belonging to an imagined community. 

In the period after the ceasefires in the mid 1990s, it was the media and not the churches who had the task of reconstructing a post-conflict community. In the event of significantly newsworthy funerals, the media continued to cultivate expressions of grief aimed at reinforcing a certain understanding of the social order. 20 years later, a funeral still attracts a wide readership in local newspapers and high viewing figures on television. There is an emphasis on colourful indulgence which bears the personal imprint of the deceased and a wider grieving family, but the Church is notable only by its absence. 

This study will ask people what they believe they are doing as consumers in an increasingly secularised Northern Ireland and, because Christian funeral services are no longer the first and only option when choosing a funeral ritual, the task will be the observation of how the bereaved wish to both signal their social status as well as dramatise exchanges which impact on social and family dynamics.