Our culture makes up who we are and what we believe. In the end, we want to pay tribute to our roots and create a personalized funeral experience to reflect that.
That’s why the mission of one company — Handful of Home — is to help Irish Americans honor their roots when they pass away. They send the earth of Ireland to Irish Americans so they can be buried with the soil of their homeland.
We spoke with Aifric O Byrne — the founder and managing director of Handful of Home — about how the process works, what it means to Irish Americans, and how it helps them create personalized funeral experiences.
Can you tell us a little about the history of Handful of Home and how it got started?
Handful of Home was started about two years ago. Speaking personally, I have many members of my family who have moved to the United States at different times over the last few centuries. Some went to escape the famine, some went to escape persecution and the political troubles in Ireland. Some of my family ended up settling in New York and Boston, while others made their way on wagon trails across the United States in search of a better life.
For my family who set up new lives in the U.S., they kept a strong sense of Irish pride. We have a big container at home which keeps all the newspaper cuttings, photographs, letters, and diaries that they sent home to us in Ireland.
I know how important Irish heritage and Irish roots were to my family that made new lives in America. I believe that if they could have chosen to be buried with a handful of the earth from Ireland, they would have. I also know that my family isn’t unique — there are millions of first-, second-, third-, fourth-, even fifth-generation Irish Americans who, although their lives are made in the United States; they keep Ireland in their hearts. Doing something to help my family and the millions of similar families across the United States to honor their roots was a mission I set out to achieve.
I myself am an international corporate attorney by training, and my co-founder Dominika is a marketing and sales professional with Procter & Gamble. We were lucky to be able to combine our insights and knowledge of international law; international regulations; and product design, creation, and marketing to finally be able to bring the earth of Ireland to the United States.
What is the mission behind Handful of Home?
The mission of Handful of Home is to give every Irish American the opportunity to bury their loved ones with Irish heritage in the United States, but surrounded by the land of their ancestors; the earth of Ireland.
In Irish culture, throwing a handful of earth on top of casket or urns has a great significance. Here in the United States, many Irish Americans would have loved the opportunity to bury their loved ones with a bit of earth from the Old Country. However, due to U.S. regulations, the transport of earth from outside the U.S. is illegal (or at best, covered by extremely strict and rigorous legislations).
I had heard many stories of Irish families trying to bring a handful of Irish earth with them on the plane from Ireland to the U.S. to help bury a loved one, only to be stopped by various border control agencies. So we set forth to find a way of treating Irish earth in a way that preserved the beautiful, dark, soft touch of the earth, and ultimately made it possible to import it into the United States. Now, Irish American families across the United States can celebrate the lives of their loved ones by burying them with a handful of the earth of their ancestors, of their heritage.
What is the process for collecting and sending the earth of Ireland?
We work with a number of a different locations in Ireland to collect our earth. Most importantly for us, working with partners to collect the earth in the most sustainable, environmentally-friendly way is paramount. Once the earth is collected, it undergoes significant testing and treatment, and obtains a number of different certificates to ensure that it meets the high threshold of entry by the USDA. It is then shipped under highly controlled circumstances to the United States, where it is tested and inspected again upon entry. Finally, once it’s passed all of these hurdles, we are able to deliver it to our warehouse in Watertown, Boston.
How does the earth of Ireland help Irish Americans create personalized funeral experiences?
There are 33 million Irish Americans living in the United States. Many are very passionately connected to the story of where they come from. Their roots, their heritage, and what it means to be Irish is important to them. Many feel as much Irish as they do American. As such, being able to personalize their end-of-life ceremonies in line with how they lived their lives is hugely important to them.
Consumers in the funeral industry are certainly looking for quality and personalization. With Handful of Home, family members can now do something unique. They can make a hugely important gesture, a final act of kindness for those that have passed, by laying them rest in the land of their ancestors. Handful of Home isn’t per se a keepsake, or a way for us to remember the departed — it’s a deeply meaningful gift — a final act of love that we as families and friends can gift to those who have passed on.
In what ways does it help families grieve and honor their loved ones?
Handful of Home is designed very much to be used as a family or community product. The Handful of Home ceremonial canister holds two pounds of pure Irish earth. Each canister is marked with a beautiful Irish prayer, so that we can read out some of the words our ancestors would have used to honor the departed at end-of-life ceremonies.
We encourage funeral directors to invite family members and friends to pass around the Handful of Home canister, each taking a handful of the cool, soft earth, and scattering it on the casket or urn of their loved one. By this action, we release our loved ones back to the land of the ancestors as a community — we come together to make a very physical, unifying gesture of goodbye.
Particularly with the increase of families looking to remember the departed through a “humanistic” rather than religious ceremony, Handful of Home brings this sense of acknowledgement and ritual, allowing families to honor their loved ones as a community, through one single repeated gesture. By joining together to create one final act of kindness for the departed, families can truly engage in an act of honoring their loved ones.
How does it help Irish Americans honor their cultural roots?
For all the Irish Americans, whether it was their parents’ generation, their grandparents’ generation, or even their great-grandparents who first set sail for the United States, the journey of their cultural roots always began in Ireland.
Millions of Irish men, women and children have left Ireland’s green shores over the past few centuries, hoping to create a better life for themselves in America. Many of these men and women kept with them their Irish heritage, blood, and cultural roots. Our Irish traditions, celebrations, and the understanding of what it “means to be Irish” is passed down through generations here in the United States.
Many Irish Americans connect with the land of Ireland on a very deep level. Some have had a chance to visit or return, but many have never had the chance to set foot on Irish earth.
For some Irish Americans, the dream may be to be buried in their green homeland, but for many reasons — financial constraints included — this may not become the case.
Handful of Home looks to complete the journey for Irish Americans who still identify closely with their cultural roots. We end the journey for our loved ones, just as it began — in the earth of Ireland.
Click here to learn more about Handful of Home’s mission to create personalized funeral experiences for Irish Americans.