Death and Dying in the Celtic Tradition

We don’t like to talk about death much in our modern culture. We want everything to be positive and light and happy. We pretend that death is not happening. We like to keep it a private and almost shameful sort of thing. Our elderly are kept out of sight as they make their transitions and our hospitals treat the process of death as something which is to be avoided at all costs (even at some costs which may be too high). But it was not always this way.

My friend Christina, who is also one of my patrons, asked me to write about traditions around death and dying, especially since we are faced with so much of it during this pandemic. In this article I want to share with you a small taste of the many varied traditions surrounding death in the Celtic way. We will be looking specifically at some of the Scottish customs recorded by folklorists Carmichael and Bennett. These stories come from the common people who practiced these ways themselves or who remembered the ways their grandparents did things when they were young. Conversations were had with elders and wise folk and recorded verbatim so that people like us could read them and learn from them and perhaps even revive them if the Spirit moved us.

After death and before the burial the body was usually kept in the home, laid out nicely on the bed. A great party would be thrown in celebration of the life of the one who had passed. The tradition of a wake is still practiced in many places. However much grief one might be experiencing an equal portion of revelry would be applied. This is very reminiscent of the principle of contraries and remedying vices with virtues which is an essential part of Celtic culture. With all the grief that comes with death, what is needed most is some laughter. All the furniture, and especially the mirrors, would be covered with white linens and people would be invited to dance, make music, and share stories of the deceased around the hearth.

There were many customs which the old people observed around death. For instance, a plate of salt and a plate of soil were often laid on the chest of the deceased person. The soil was said to represent the physical body, the earthly house, and the salt was said to represent the heavenly state of the soul. In some instances, in place of soil was a plate of bread and people specially designated as “sin eaters” would say an incantation over the two plates resting on the breast of the body and then eat their contents thus relieving the deceased person of any sins which would have kept them from passing on to heaven.

Without this ritual, or another one like it, it was believed the ghost would remain and harass their family and never find rest. Some today still have a plate of salt on the belly or breast of the body with the understanding that it is to prevent swelling. It’s interesting to see how these old traditions (which may well have their origins in the ancient pre-Christian ways) survive with new reasons and beliefs. Somehow, practice is more easily kept than other aspects of culture and remains even when the shifting sands of belief come and go.

One very common practice is that of staying up and watching the corpse, in some areas referred to as a lykewake. For the most part this is now seen as a sign of respect for the deceased, but in the olden days it was believed that if the body were not watched the devil would come and take it away. These sittings were usually done by youth who were relations of the family. They were given a drink of whiskey at the beginning of the night and some tea or beer with bread at some point in the middle of the night. It was customary to tell stories during these times and many stories of supernatural happenings were commonly reported by the watchers. Often times the watchers would read scriptures, in particular psalm 91, John 15, and 1 Corinthians 15.

It was considered bad luck to see the body without touching it. A week of bad dreams would be the consequence and even reluctant children were required to touch it. I wonder if these practices of touching the body and watching it all night helped to connect people with the truth of death. We don’t typically see a body today until after its been stuffed and painted and presented in a beautiful box. We don’t like to have death be a real and present reality. We do everything we can to distance ourselves from this natural process which we will all one day participate in.

But for the Celtic people, death was not a taboo thing which had to be hidden. It was a family event with both mourning and celebrating. The dead are no longer with us in the flesh but they are always with us in the spirit. This is what the salt and soil represented. One aspect is gone forever and one is beginning a new journey. The moment of death, like the moment of birth, is a thin time. The otherworld is particularly linked to this one as the deceased person moves across the veil which separates life from death. It is only fitting to honour such an important event with song and drama. One Captain Edward Burt was recorded in 1726 and described the practice of the highland Scots like this:

“The upper class hire women to moan and lament (keen) at the funeral of their nearest relations. These women cover their heads with a small piece of cloth, mostly green, and every now and then break out into a hideous howl and Ho-bo-bo-bo-boo; as I have often heard is done in some parts of Ireland. This part of the ceremony is called a coronach, and generally speaking, is the cause of much drunkenness, attended with its concomitants, mischievous rencounters and bloody broils. For all who have arms in their possession accoutre themselves with them upon those occasions.”

These professional weeping women were known as ‘bean tuiream.’ A similar task was that of the ‘seisig bhais’ who performed death dirges like the one below taken from the Carmina Gadelica.

You are going home this night to your home of winter,
To your home of autumn, of spring, and of summer;
You are going home this night to your perpetual home,
To your eternal bed, to your eternal slumber.

Sleep now, sleep, and away with your sorrow,
Sleep now, sleep, and away with your sorrow,
Sleep now, sleep, and away with your sorrow;
Sleep, my beloved, in the Rock of the fold.

Sleep this night in the breast of your Mother,
Sleep, my beloved, while she herself soothes you;
Sleep this night on the Virgin's arm,
Sleep, my beloved, while she herself kisses you.

The great sleep of Jesus, the surpassing sleep of Jesus,
The sleep of Jesus' wound, the sleep of Jesus' grief,
The young sleep of Jesus, the restoring sleep of Jesus,
The sleep of the kiss of Jesus of peace and of glory.

The sleep of seven lights be yours, beloved,
The sleep of seven joys be yours, beloved,
The sleep of the seven slumbers be yours, beloved,
On the arm of the Jesus of blessings, the Christ of grace.

The shade of death lies upon your face, beloved,
But the Jesus of grace has His hand round about you,
In nearness to the Trinity farewell to your pains,
Christ stands before you and peace is in his mind.

Sleep, O sleep in the calm of all calm,
Sleep, O sleep in the guidance of guidance,
Sleep, O sleep in the love of all loves;
Sleep, O beloved, in the Lord of life,
Sleep, O beloved, in the God of life! 

This dirge shows the way in which contraries can be used to make something sorrowful a little more joyful. By combating the grief of death with the joy of the life to come balance is at least in some fashion restored. This dirge has a feel very much like a lullaby which would be sung to a new born baby. This juxtaposition of joy with sorrow and the beginning of life with the end creates a sacred space in which the boundaries of life and death, grief and comfort, fade into one another. As the one who is dying passes into the oneness of God, this song honours the blurring of boundaries and the thinness of the veil between heaven and earth, life and death.

We don’t need do follow these exact customs but would be wise to have more ritual honouring of death in our culture. Song, drama, and ritual have a way of touching our hearts and easing difficulties. There is real comfort in traditions such as these and they are an important element of any balanced society. Besides offering comfort they also teach and prepare us. They remind us that one day we all die and that gives life perspective.

How do you remember your ancestors?

In what ways have the funerals of others helped you prepare for your own inevitable passing?

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