The second funeral of IRA victim Jean McConville took place in autumnal sunshine in west Belfast yesterday, with a poignant and dignified final farewell in a packed Falls Road Catholic church.
At St Paul's Church her six sons tenderly lifted her coffin and carried it inside, a priest at the church door sprinkling it with holy water as it entered.
Inside ushers handed out a leaflet which, as well as outlining the funeral mass, also appealed for information about other "disappeared" people who, like Mrs McConville, were killed and buried by the IRA in the 1970s.
As they settled into their seats the congregation listened to a sweetly sad Irish harp, watching as relatives of other people who went missing carried candles in procession to the altar.
The first funeral of Mrs McConville took place on a winter's night in December 1972, on a deserted Irish Sea beach. She had been snatched from her Falls Road home by a gang of IRA men and women, leaving nine terrified children behind.
Her children remember - they will never forget - that she was in hysterics when she was dragged away from them. A small woman, only 4ft 9ins tall, she could not put up much of a fight.
Mrs McConville's hysterics were ended with an IRA bullet to the head. She was taken, trussed in a carpet or whatever, in the boot of a car or the back of a van the 40 miles to her grave. Some of the IRA would have stood guard while others readied a hole in the sand and then tipped the slight figure into what would be her resting place for three decades.
Possibly someone said a few words over her; probably not. Perhaps some of the "active service unit" glanced at each other in search of reassurance that the cause of Ireland did really require the life of this 37-year-old widow to be ended, her children orphaned.
The unmarked grave where they left her was located in August, with some help from the IRA, after years of campaigning for information. Yesterday's second funeral, the proper one, was, in the words of Father Tom Toner, nearly 31 years late.
He told the congregation: "In the history of our troubles there can be no more despicable act than the abduction, murder and casual disposal of the body of Jean McConville, and subsequent plight of her children. "It is our most shameful example of the moral corruption and degradation that violence generates in the human spirit."
The congregation broke into applause when the Rev Ruth Patterson, a Presbyterian minister who has been of huge help to the family, said they wanted a good send-off "not just because of what's happened to her but because she was our mum".
Many of the children have led disturbed and troubled lives: orphaned, institutionalised, subject to a whispering campaign that she was an informer. They believe she died because she helped a wounded British soldier. Many of their lives have been restless and unsettled.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all the decades of trauma and distress have caused problems within the family itself, with one daughter, Helen, disagreeing with the others over the funeral arrangements. In the end she attended the service, but everyone knows the family's troubles are not over. Yesterday's burial was a huge step forward for this tortured family, but decades of trauma cannot be erased easily or quickly.
After the service the funeral processed slowly and sadly down the main Falls Road to Divis Flats, where the family home used to be. Once a hellish, overcrowded, violent ghetto, most of it has now been pulled down and replaced with decent housing.
Along the Falls Road knots of people, mostly women, stood in the cold in sympathy and solidarity. "It's disgraceful," said one old lady, her eyes filled with pity. "That's the way I felt, though I didn't know her." Another white-haired lady had travelled several miles across the city to stand at Divis. "I just wanted to be here," she said. "The whole circumstances of her death were so horrible, positively horrible. I couldn't let it go without coming across."
Today's Divis shows how much the Falls has changed. Where once the walls bore depictions of gunmen in balaclavas, now there are election pictures of smiling Sinn Fein candidates, including Gerry Adams, seeking votes.
When the cortège reached Divis it halted, the six McConville brothers who bore the coffin standing unmoving for a minute's silence close to the spot where their mother was taken from them.
They all looked straight ahead. Michael McConville brushed a tear from his eye. There was a touch on the shoulder from an undertaker, and they moved off again.
The coffin was then placed in a hearse so that Mrs McConville, after a proper funeral service, could be taken to a proper grave where hopefully she will know the peace that has eluded her family.
She may rest in peace: her children, after the years of torment, have yet to do so. But in a sense she has now come home to them, a homecoming that may help them rebuild their ravaged lives.Reuse content