SEQUENCE OF EVENTS SURROUNDING DEATH
(from right before death to internment)
The following are customs surrounding death that we know have been or are
practiced in the Gaelic culture. Each of these are held by scholars to be
carry overs from the time of our traditional pre-Christian ancestors.
When the person began the dying process the Anumcarra was called. It was her
job to help during this transition . She used herbs to soften the pangs of death,
prepared the person for what to expect after they had passed over, and to make
the proper incantations after they had. If a person passed before she could
arrive, then once she arrived, she spoke to them and told them what to do
to continue on their journey.
While the person was dying there was a death vigil held by those close to them.
The dead were washed using water from a sacred well or by sea water to protect
them while passing through the realms of water to the land under wave (Tir-na Nog).
This also stands in contrast to the birth baptism. The idea being that the
first sealed them one this side after their journey here, the second sealed
them on the otherside after leaving here.
When washed the corpse was wrapped in the Eslene (Death Shirt) and laid on a
fuat or bier in the center of the home for seven days.
Rush torches were kept burning for the seven days and nights.
The body was never left alone and was usually guarded by two close friends or
relatives. The travel to and from a wake was never undertaken alone.
The rites would begin by the traditional practice of "Caoine" (pronounced Keena,
the Anglicised word became keening). This would take the form of great lamentation
interspersed by periods of praise for the dead person. The Caoine is not the
mournful and haunting wail that it is often portrayed as. The Caoine is the
singing of a lament over the dead. Here is an example:
O father, you have left us! Ochon!
Why did you leave us? Ochon!
Or what did we do to you? Ohon!
That you went away from us? Ochon!
Tis you that had plenty! Ochon!
And why did you leave us? Ochon!
(all join in) Ochon! Ochon! Ochon!
Strong was your arm! Ochon!
Light was your step! Ochon!
Skilled were your hands! Ochon!
Poor we are without you! Ochon!
And why did you leave us? Ochon!
(all) Ochon, Ochon, Ullagon O!!
The corpse has a bowl placed on their chest filled with food, gold, weapons,
salt etc. are laid out on the bier throughout.
After three days of Caoine and dependent on the status of the deceased, feasting
and games would be held in their honor. This would continue till the day of
internment, or cremation in some places.
Pertaining to the games, there were a great many played. Some where only played
at wakes. Among these were The bees and the Honey and The Horse Fair. In
the first an innocent gom was seated on a stool and covered with straw while
the bees, other young men, buzzed around him looking for honey. Each bee"
gathered a big mouthful of water and all them at once emptied the water onto
the hive, soaking the gom. In The Horse Fair, a number of young boys and young
men played the part of horses who were being put through their paces by a
dealer who used adequate names (a tall boy might be racehorse, a more
horizontally challenged boy called cob and a rambunctious lad called colt).
Dealer would have them all show off tricks and running and jumping. If one
failed they were either beaten by the dealer or made to lie on the floor while
yet another, the blacksmith pounded the soles of their feet. Others were
Buying the Oats, Fronsey Fronsey, Hot Hands, Fool In The Middle,
"Selling the Pig, The Poloney Man and many others.
On the morning of internment a visitor came bearing a measuring rod called a
"fey". This Aspenwood rod was carved with Ogham letters and was used to measure
the deceased to ensure a proper fit within the final resting place. This rod
was held in awe and terror, and none would look at it, as it was thought that
if this rod caught your measure your death was imminent.
At the setting of the sun on the seventh day the corpse would be carried by
seven men or a chariot if of noble status and buried or burned depending on
Burials were of three sorts. The first type found the deceased placed in the
grave curled up on their left side, head to the north and facing east. These
usually found the deceased buried with the pin which held their clothing closed,
a pot, and a joint of lamb or mutton. The second found the body laid out
unflexed on an east-west axis. The bodies commonly had a great many things
interred with them including broaches on occasion, and commonly iron tools,
spears and swords. There was no lamb or sheep, instead it was common to place
half of a pigs skull and forelimb in the grave. These in addition to other
foods and drink. This last ones seems to be most common amongst ancient Gaelic
graves. The third type found chariots and very fine metal work or other
items of refinement placed with the deceased. An interesting fact is that
women seem to have been accorded the highest honors in their grave types and
goods more often than men.
The graves themselves started as square barrows, the walls lined with stone
and a cap stone placed on top. These later evolved into a grave pit surrounded
by a ditch. The soil from the ditch was then used to cover the body and grave
A few customs found in practice at least up to the last century more than
likely date from the pagan era. Some of them were the taboos against digging
a grave on Monday unless the sod had been cut on Sunday or to dig a grave at
night. Others were the closing of windows, doors and shades or shutters of the
houses which the funeral procession will pass.
Cremation styles seem to have varied from one Celtic area to another. The
most common form was that found amongst the Pretanic tribes of Britain which
many scholars believe to have been imported by the Belgae. This found the body
being burned and the ashes placed in an urn which was then buried with sub-
stantial things such as firedogs and other fine metal works. Another
cremation style used was the pyre.
Within the Brehon Law there exists the "rights of the corpse". This law
states that certain personal possessions belongs to the dead and cannot be
taken from them under any circumstances, even as a debt owed. These items are
a horse, a cow, a bed, a house or its furniture. These items would be
retained by the next of kin.