The Friary Cemetery, Clane, Co. Kildare

Around the thirteenth century, the Franciscans came to the village of Clane and build a new abbey on the site of the old one founded by St Ailbhe eight centuries earlier. Visits from the Vikings and the Normans had put paid to the missionary work emanating from the holy site.

Today, the Franciscans still celebrate Mass here once a year, on the feast of our Lady of the Angels of the Porzioncula on 2 August. 

In the years since then, the Friary’s fortunes ebbed and flowed depending on the largesse of its patrons. In the mid-sixteenth century, with the reformation, it was left to ruin.

Today, the ruins sit incongruously in front of the village’s hotel and behind the IVF clinic. That the still-active cemetery sits between a place for rest for travellers and a place where life is propagated makes me smile.

For such a small cemetery, it has a notable concentration of Celtic crosses.

Reading up on the origins and meaning of the Celtic Cross didn’t yield anything definitive. It was either introduced by St Patrick or St Declan or St Columba – take your pick. The four arms could represent the four points of the compass or the four elements, or our mind, body, heart, and soul. Or a combination? Or none?  It’s also been described as a divine compass that aids in spiritual navigation.

Author and navigator Crichton Miller has demonstrated that the shape could have been used as a navigational device and architectural aid by ancient explorers and builders.

While the examples of the Celtic Cross in the cemetery are quite something, it was another gravestone that set me thinking.

When Christina Slevin died, her husband Laurence became a widower. Had he predeceased her, she’d have been a widow. Had their kids outlived them, they’d have been orphans. But was there a name for parents who have outlived their children, I wondered? If there was, I couldn’t bring it to mind.

I did find a 2009 opinion piece by Duke professor Karla FC Holloway, though.

In the years since her son’s death, Holloway had searched for a name that would describe her, a parent who had lost a child. Widow, she says, is a Sanskrit word. And it was in Sanskrit that she found the word she was looking for.

Vilomah means “against a natural order.” As in, the grey-haired should not bury those with black hair [a Chinese saying, apparently]. As in our children should not precede us in death. If they do, we are vilomahed.

I’m a great believer in naming things. Eve Ensler did a lovely piece on the power and mystery of naming things for NPR back in 2006 – it’s worth a read/listen. Holloway agrees.

The difference between today’s grief and tomorrow’s is that now there is a name. Vilomah. A parent whose child has died.

My fascination with cemeteries as repositories of stories and springboards of knowledge continues.


@ 2024 Mary Murphy