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If you don’t know what ICLVR means, you’re in good company. Almost everyone in almost every nation on earth wouldn’t have a clue. But it’s different in Northern Ireland. Many people there will know that the initials stand for the “Independent Commission for the Location of Victims’ Remains”.

It’s a long name for an organization that has to deal with a bad business: trying to recover the bodies of those murdered and buried in hidden locations during the Troubles, or the period when terrorist activity in Northern Ireland was at its height. If the IRA or another republican group believed that someone was an informer or otherwise harming their work, they would abducted and question them. If they got the wrong answers, the abducted person would be shot and buried in remote countryside.

The family and friends of the victims were often left in a terrible situation. If they tried to bring the killers to justice, they would be in danger of suffering the same fate. And they would have no body to bury, no funeral to attend and say a final farewell to their loved one. The victims of these murders are now referred to as the Disappeared. One of the most shocking cases was that of Jean McConville, a widowed mother-of-ten who was abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1973 after being accused of being an informer.

Her family denied the accusation and never gave up asking for her body to be returned for burial. Other families suffered similar losses in the 1970s and ’80s, but had to suffer the same uncertainty and inability to bury their loved ones. Then the peace process in Northern Ireland began in the 1990s. It brought a softening of attitudes among hard-line republicans and information began to be passed to relatives of the Disappeared about the location of some of the hidden graves. 

But precise records had not been kept and memories were often hazy after so many years had passed. The families sometimes only had rough locations and the authorities had to search large areas for unmarked graves. This happened to Jean McConville’s family. Their hopes were raised when they were given a location, but the search wasn’t over: it wasn’t until 2003, thirty years after her disappearance, that her body was discovered at a beach on the north-east coast of the Republic of Ireland. Her family could finally give her a proper funeral.

Other relatives and friends of the Disappeared are still waiting for a proper funeral. Their loved ones are still lying in unmarked graves somewhere in Northern Ireland or the Republic. But one grave was in France. Seamus Ruddy was working as a teacher in Paris when he was abducted and murdered by the terrorist group called the INLA (Irish Nationalist Liberation Army) in 1985. He had been involved with the political wing of the INLA and was believed to have moved to France to break his involvement and begin a new life.

The INLA didn’t allow him that chance. After his murder, his body was buried in a secret location somewhere in northern France and a long agony began for his family. Even when they were given information about the location of his grave in 2008, it proved insufficient or inaccurate: searches in the area named revealed nothing. But this year a new search has been successful: Seamus Ruddy’s body was discovered and returned to Northern Ireland to be given a decent burial at a proper funeral. His family and friends could finally say goodbye. And now they have a grave to visit and pay their respects.

The loss of a loved one is never easy, but it becomes harder still when a funeral cannot take place. It’s an essential ritual of farewell to the loved one and of closure for the family and friends. That’s why the families of the Disappeared never gave up the search. One by one, the secretly buried bodies have been located and returned. We must hope that one day all of them will have been found and all of them re-buried in the right way after proper funerals.

National Federation of Funeral Directors