Recently on the Volta streaming platform I came across One Million Dubliners, a low-key Irish documentary from 2014 directed by Aoife Kelleher and produced by Rachel Lysaght for the Dublin production company Underground Films. The film was funded by the Irish Film Board and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. While watching, it occurred to me that the film was the perfect antidote to Love/Hate, RTÉ’s hugely popular ‘gangland’ drama, whose five-season run was just coming to a close when Kelleher’s thoughtful film had its premiere.
Love/Hate ended with the kind of bloodbath that had become typical of the series. Death was presented as a throwaway occurrence, violently enacted, ahistorical and devoid of social meaning beyond the simple evolutionary logic of gangland politics – a survival of the fittest, within the narrow confines of aggressive male competition for resources. In this commodified world, market logic prevails: anything can be bought because everything, even human loyalty, is for sale. Death is a mundane fact of life, doled out to mark the boundaries of criminal territory or denote the passage of power from one would-be overlord to the next.
One Million Dubliners, on the other hand, restores a sense of dignity and meaning to death and commemoration. The cemetery is presented as a kind of idealised workplace, where management and proletariat join forces to carry out the important function of disposal in a controlled, dignified manner sensitive to the needs of survivors (a ceremonial goodbye) and to the environment (the relative merits of cremation versus traditional decomposition). Here, commodification is also in evidence – there’s a hierarchy of value attached to the location of burial plots, and land resources are carefully managed to maximise the yield of plots per acre. But in contradiction to that economic engineering, the logistics of disposal (burial, cremation) are seen as vital, dignified work rather than a manual chore. A gravedigger carefully excavates a plot with due respect for its many other occupants. A technician explains the cremation process while we witness the incineration and subsequent transfer of remains to the ash pulveriser. We are aware that the presentation of ashes to the family is a ceremonial rite providing comfort and closure, but we are also made conscious of the industrial processes underpinning these forward-facing activities. For Glasnevin cemetery workers, the production/disposal line is a site of meaningful labour rather than alienation, a contributor to human flourishing in a moral economy that could not differ more from Love/Hate’s sex, drugs and alcohol-fuelled rat race.
These gravediggers do important and necessary work, and One Million Dubliners does them proud.