Monday, July 08, 2024

'Funerals have always been part of our family': Meet one of Ireland's youngest embalmers

'Funerals have always been part of our family': Meet one of Ireland's youngest embalmers

At just 22-years-old, Ronan Conneely is already recognised as one of Ireland’s leading embalmers.

The Galway man, who works as a funeral director and is the head of embalming in Conneely Funeral Directors, has been honing his skills from an extremely young age.  

Having come from a long line of funeral directors and embalmers, he has always been passionate about the family business — or rather family businesses.

“I’m probably unusual in that my mum and dad both came from families who operated funeral homes, namely O’Flaherty’s and Conneely’s,” he told the Irish Examiner

“I don’t think this had anything to do with them meeting but that was how it worked out. 

"Now, my uncle runs Conneely Funeral Directors while my mum  — Cathriona O’Flaherty — and dad — William Conneely — run O’Flaherty’s. 

"I work between both but I’m head of embalming with Conneely’s.

After earning top grades from the British Institute of Embalming as well as a bachelor’s degree in commerce, Ronan has already been included on an elite database of international embalmers.

“I’ve been recruited by an international company which takes care of disaster cases and reconstructive work across the world. 

"It means that I am on call for them too. 

"I could potentially get a call today and have to fly out to a cruise ship to take care of someone who has passed away. 

"There are a lot of different aspects to the job that people who aren’t in the funeral industry might not be aware of.” 

Funerals have been part of Ronan’s life for as long as he can remember.

“It’s like anything. If your parents own the local shop then you are going to be coming back with the gossip from customers. 

"It was normal for us to be talking about funerals but there was always a lot of respect. 

"Sometimes my brothers and I would be arguing in the back of the car. 

"However, the minute the phone rang we just stopped and went quiet as we knew it could be a family calling my mum.” 

Ronan started helping out with the family businesses from the age of 15.

“My granddad William Conneely was the first person to introduce embalming in the West of Ireland and my aunt was the first female embalmer in Galway. 

"Mum was pregnant with me the year she became the first female president of the Irish Association of Funeral Directors so there is a lot of history there. 

"Like any young person helping out with the family business, I was doing minor jobs like sweeping the yards and changing the bins at first. 

"I knew this was something I wanted to do and I wanted to do it well. 

"Slowly but surely I started going into the embalming theatre and watching the embalmers at work. 

"I helped them clean and over time got more involved. It was completely my decision. It was really comfortable for me. 

"I felt it was an amazing thing that you could preserve the memories of someone for the days leading up to their funeral. 

"It’s so important for a family to see their loved one looking well.” 

The 22-year-old is grateful to be learning about the business from both sides of his family.

“The family businesses still operate separately. Conneely’s is run by my uncle who is my dad's brother, and my dad works with my mom in O’Flaherty’s. 

"I get to work between the two of them which is quite unique and I feel really lucky to be able to do that.” 

He described the more challenging parts of his career.

“Sometimes I hear people say that you can get desensitised to the work, but I don’t think you do. You just get better at managing your emotions.

"When there’s a younger person involved it is upsetting but you have to be able to control your emotions for the duration of the funeral.

He remembers one tragic case involving a young person, and the realisation that a young life had been lost.

“We brought this young man home who looked really well. 

"Everyone said he looked great but commented that there was something wrong. 

"Straight away my heart sank before I realised what they meant. 

"They had never seen him sit still during his life. 

"He had always been messing or slagging someone.

"Suddenly, that was all gone. That was the thing that was different. 

"It kind of opened my eyes and made me realise just how hard it is for people to see someone lying down and still when they were once so full of life.“ 

However, Ronan says thankfully, burying young people is still a rare enough occurrence.

"The majority of the time, funerals are a celebration of someone who has had a full and healthy life. 

"Families are sharing memories, stories, and old photographs, which is how it should be.” 

Ronan and his family's skills are in big demand.

“We take care of the embalming for lots of the funeral directors in Galway, Co Galway, and surrounding areas. 

"Often, we act as the middle man for funeral homes who don’t have their own embalmers. 

"We take care of nearly 85% of the people in Galway who have passed away which is a huge honour. 

It’s a great privilege to look after people and their family.

"This is seven days a week for my family. We could be called in the middle of the night to go and collect someone from a house. 

"It’s similar to farming in that it’s a vocation but it never seems like work to me. 

"We’re happy that people have trusted us to take care of their families. This really is an honour.” 

Death has never been an uncomfortable subject for Ronan.

“Naturally, I suppose I’m a little more comfortable with death because I’m surrounded by it every day. 

"When you see a big family complete with grandchildren and they are all together it really is like a celebration. 

"Even in the case of a sudden death, it’s amazing to see families coming together and supporting each other through difficult days. 

I, myself have a lot of faith, which gives me a more positive outlook on death.”