Of Wails, Watchers and Wales

Of encounters, brief and long pants

For anyone wondering what had happened to me, I’ve been a long way away. In fact such a long way away that I almost feel I should sidle in to the strains of a Rachmaninov piano concerto.

Unlike Celia Johnson though, my absence has been of the purely physical kind – a long encounter with north Wales, the Lakes and Scotland. I stayed away from railway platforms, took my husband with me and got nothing in my eye, I promise.

Anyway, the curtains of Autumn are drawing in. Imagining blog-reading Trevor Howards everywhere chorusing ‘thank you for coming back to us’ (oh vanity, thy name is Judeness…) let us continue…

Moving left along the fireplace wall, you come to the first of two almost identical double cupboards which sandwich the chimneybreast.

The right hand one, where we’ll stop today, is where non everyday china is kept; the ‘best’ ware, reserved for special occasions, clearly distinguished from the forbidden china which lived in the seld in that it is, sometimes, pressed into service.

On the middle of the three shelves – a little crammed in – sits the tea-set which only comes out for funerals. In fact so closely do I associate it with the dead that I think of its pattern as ‘Norwegian Blue’ rather than the ‘Blue Nordic’ it officially is.

Collected piece by piece by my mother during the 1970s, each item walked home from town in her capacious red vinyl shopping bag, it’s a strange mixture of stylised flowers, foliage and – somewhat bizarrely – things resembling onions. It has, for some time now, been all that remains of the ‘best’ ware of my youth.

Grampa’s death was about as good as they get. He lived until he was 86, had had ‘flu, but died suddenly, in his own bed, holding the hand of someone who loved him. His last words were a request for my mother to put his pants to air as he felt better and intended getting up later.

Pants, for Grampa, were substantial things – welsh woollen long-johns, worn year-round. They kept him warm in winter and wisdom received when he served in Egypt in the First War was to ‘dress against the heat’ so he never wore less than a double layer of clothing on his bottom half and a triple layer on the top. His one concession to a heat wave might be to roll up his shirt sleeves, but neither his collar nor his waistcoat ever unbuttoned. His legs, when revealed from the knee down for their once-a-month soak followed by an application of Noxacorn and a little DIY surgery with a penknife were as white and as hairless as lard.

Working in the garden dictated the extra protection of ecru overalls. I can visualise him now, kneeling on an old folded sack between the regimented drills of potatoes, occasionally straightening up from his weeding to remove his hat and mop his brow with his handkerchief. In between, sweat soaked the fabric of his fedora dark around the petersham band and eventually dripped from the end of his nose.

Of sympathy, empathy and culpability

His funeral was the first I had known centred on my home and during the days that led up to it, I learned rather a lot about the welsh way of death, including the custom of ‘calling to sympathise’ – and I don’t mean picking up the telephone. Within hours of his passing, the quiet, respectful knocks on the front door harbinged neighbours, friends, relatives and acquaintances.

There was a strange formality to the process; I became door-person, ushering callers into the front room where they would commiserate in hushed tones with my mother before being given tea. Their cups drained, they would then ask ‘ble mae e ‘te?’ – ‘where is he then?’ – an indication that they were now ready to be shown into the parlour to pay their last respects to my grandfather’s body before leaving.

My mother though had broken with tradition; Grampa’s body had already been taken off by the undertaker to pass the liminal days between death and burial in the new-fangled ‘Chapel of Rest’. Disapprobation was considerable, I’m sure, but was shown only by little ‘oh’s of surprise and a slight awkwardness now that the culmination of the sympathising ritual had unexpectedly been cancelled.

Actually one of my friends tells a delicious tale of exactly the opposite happening – of her father’s body having been laid out by an undertaker who was also a coal merchant (well at least the suits are dark…) A family friend was bemused beyond to find himself being shown in to pay his last respects when all he’d actually intended paying was a bill for anthracite…

Anyway the lack of a my grandfather’s corpse didn’t keep people away and as the days passed, more and more of the callers either brought quantities of cakes or left with the promise of a sponge for Thursday. Sponges for funerals are, by the way, always plain or lemon. Chocolate would be too frivolous, coffee too bohemian and hundreds-and-thousands taboo. Once it was past the decent time for callers, the in-house baking began too; fruit cake, bara brith, scones and of course welsh cakes by the several dozen.

But the baking was only one element of the logistics involved in the post-funeral feeding of up to a hundred. Offers of teapots were accepted from neighbours whilst set-by-set all the china from the fireside cupboard had to be carried out to the kitchen, washed and dried in readiness. The morning of the funeral itself was consumed by loaves and dishes; once the salmon, ham and egg mayonnaise had had their fill, the kitchen worktops were washed, shrouded with tablecloths and laid out ready with cups, saucers and teapots.

Traditionally, the house of the deceased is never left empty during a funeral but we dismissed the superstition and locked the door behind us. Besides, I was glad of the excuse to head straight home from the chapel to get the kettles boiling; I had no wish to see the coffin interred.

It’s traditional, too, for the undertaker to remain outside the chapel during the funeral service – but highly untraditional for the aforementioned to have to conduct the bearers through the cemetery end of their duties whilst covered in an icing of guano. That a seagull chose to anoint black-suited ‘Billy the Box’ with quite extreme quantities of ‘good luck’ whilst the three preachers paid homage to Grampa brought some welcome lightness to the dark hour if not his dark jacket.

The luck, however, did not extend to the immediate family. Returning to the house after the service I sensed an unnatural stillness. For one thing it was the first time I’d ever come in to an empty home – the first time I’d needed a key to enter it – and Grampa’s vacant chair, pushed back from its usual fireside spot to allow better access to the food-laden table added to the poignancy. And why weren’t the dogs barking? They’d been shut in the kitchen away from the food but they always barked when they heard the front door open…

Cats, when interrupted doing something they shouldn’t, brazen it out. Some fix you with that look that purrs ‘hey, the thing with feathers was asking for it… we’re a different species… don’t expect us to share your moral code…’ Others suddenly find the need to wash utterly, utterly compelling. If they could whistle, they would.

Dogs, however, do ‘guilty’ rather better than most humans and Mab and Mitzi – obviously stopped mid tablecloth tug-of-war by the sound of my return – stood silent and shame-faced, as shattered by their culpability as the best china all over the kitchen floor. Only the Norwegian Blue, perched on trays on top of the cooker, was not a dead tea-set. The Glengettie, then, at Grampa’s funeral, was served very slowly out of a single blue-and-white coffee pot with a strained air that had nothing to do with it being loose leaf. The house was never left empty during a funeral again.

Of matters modern, mutes and mutual respect…

I’m not even sure that I want a funeral. Whilst recognising that preparing for them serves the purpose of imposing structure on the desolate days immediately post-bereavement, they’re fairly hideous ordeals for the immediate family and today of no vital consequence to anyone else. And I definitely don’t want one of those strange modern gatherings ‘to celebrate the life of…’ If you think I make a reasonable job of living tell me now; don’t wait until I’ve gone and if I’ve got to have some sort of send-off, at least do me the courtesy of being sad at it.

At one time of course you could hire people to be sad at your funeral, in the form of paid mourners and mutes. The former specialised in vocal distress whilst the mutes’ forté was standing round, silently, looking glum. Now there’s a career option for the thousands of depressed people the Government plans to throw off sickness benefits… Sorry, enable into work…

It’s a career option that was considered for Oliver Twist too: ‘There’s an expression of melancholy in his face, my dear,’ resumed Mr. Sowerberry, ‘…He would make a delightful mute…I don’t mean a regular mute to attend grown-up people… but only for children’s practice. It would be very new to have a mute in proportion… it would have a superb effect.’ A shame it doesn’t come from ‘A Christmas Carol‘ or you could have had the original ‘Bob, Marley and the Wailers’…

Anyway the popular employ of mutes and paid mourners in Europe lasted from the 1600s right through to the start of the last century although the tradition allegedly has much older roots. In his 1926 ‘Funeral Customs, their Origin and Development‘ Betram S. Puckle records: ‘Laugh as we will at the mute, he had a history and a pedigree which for longevity would put to shame the pretensions of many a noble house. He was a direct descendant of the Roman mime, who likewise dressed in black, but wearing a portrait mask of wax aped the mannerisms not only of the deceased in whose funeral procession he walked, but of the defunct members of the family.’

Puckle writes too of  paid ‘watchers’ who seem to have served a similar purpose to the mute: ‘So completely did the watcher take charge of the situation that in Scotland the thrifty poor were obliged to shorten the period between the death and burial of their dead in order to reduce his charges. The social status of the bereaved family was largely estimated by the length of time they were able to hold out against the exactions of the watcher, but it was considered a point of honour to employ the services of this functionary.’

Hazzlit, in his Dictionary of Faiths and Folklores also touches on the pressure to ‘keep up with the ex-Joneses’ in Scotland: ‘the desire of what is called a decent funeral, i.e. one to which all the inhabitants of the district are invited and at which every part of the usual entertainment is given is one of the strongest in the poor. The expense of it amounts to nearly two pounds. This sum, therefore, every person in mean circumstances is anxious to lay up and he will not spare it unless reduced to the greatest extremity.’

Some impatience with the seeming extravagances of the masses is recorded in the Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-99 (Parish of Lochbroom – volume 10 p.469-470). ‘At their burials and marriages the inhabitants too much adhere to the folly of their ancestors. On these occasions they have a custom of feasting a great number of their friends and neighbours, and this often at an expense which proves greatly to the prejudice of poor orphans and young people…’

A motive for such profligacy is offered by Maria Edgeworth writing in 1800 of Irish funerals: ‘The lower Irish are wonderfully eager to attend the funerals of their friends and relations, and they make their relationships branch out to a great extent. The proof that a poor man has been well beloved during his life is his having a crowded funeral…’

Certainly even in today’s rural Wales great importance is put on the numbers that attend any funeral although we tend to express it more as a measure of the ‘parch‘ – the ‘respect’ – felt for the deceased than a yardstick of love.

My great great grandfather’s funeral report from 1905 provides an unusual glimpse of a working class welsh funeral. It’s unusual in that – as the report puts it – ‘We publish in this issue the portrait of a well known local worthy – a son of the soil. In so doing a departure is made from the customary usage of emblazoning the press with the features alone of the departed who have climbed the ladder of fame: but whoever in the dead past has gone to his fathers honoured and sung to doleful requiem, none more worthy has ever entered the portals of mystery than John Morgan of Cefynydre’…

The reason his funeral is reported remains unknown. He was, after all, as the newspaper calls him merely ‘a horny handed veteran‘ – a ploughwright and carpenter who had married a pauper. He had a trade but the family were still distinctly of the working class. Perhaps though it was his long-time devotion to the non-conformist cause which singled him out for recognition. It was, after all, the height of the Revival – indeed the same edition of The County Echo reports how the appearance of a meteorite in the sky over North Pembrokeshire had been interpreted by some of the ‘innocent country dames‘ as a ‘second star of Bethlehem predicting the coming of the Rev. Seth Johnson who is on tour through West Wales in the Methodist Connection‘.

Of the funeral itself we are told:

However high eulogy may ascend, no word picture can equal the outward and visible tokens of esteem shown by the inhabitants on Tuesday afternoon last, when all that was mortal of the late Mr John Morgan were borne to their final resting place at the Baptist Cemetery. The town wore the stillness of the Sabbath, business houses were closed and blinds drawn in every residence and there was unmistakable evidence of profound public feeling of regret and sympathy… Hundreds of mourners and friends of all classes had assembled to pay a last tribute of respect…’ Quite a turn-out then – I can only hope that they had several teapots at their disposal…

Back over in Ireland, Edgeworth tells us that ‘Even beggars, when they grow old, go about begging FOR THEIR OWN FUNERALS that is, begging for money to buy a coffin, candles, pipes, and tobacco

That last paragraph dampened my eyes – in fact it rates right up there alongside the ‘lonely sheep dying on the hill’ that I touched upon a blog or two ago. No matter how much I try telling myself that hypothermia’s probably quite a cool way to die, I still hate to think of anything or anyone being cold and alone at their passing…

It also brought to mind a song I first heard when I was 15.

Of portents, passage and Peel…

For weeks I had been helping to keep vigil. My Great Uncle John was dying a protracted death in the days when pain control was a very hit or miss affair. It was simply a matter of enduring the time. My mother and his sister, Sal, took it in turns to wait with him day and night, nursing him but mostly just being there – watching and waiting for the kindness of death. I waited with them, and in so doing obviously crossed some threshold in their eyes, for for the first time in my life I found myself being included in extremely adult conversations.

It wasn’t just a baptism in the fluids of the dying, although the way in which the contents of each sick-bowl or bedpan were discussed did rather bring to mind an examination of the entrails. Sal and mum were both deeply steeped in ‘old’ beliefs about deaths and dying and their exchanged reports of various signs and portents opened doors to a strange new world. Howling dogs, odd noises, birds of the day heard singing by night – all provided an eerie accompaniment to John’s groans during the slowest pre-dawn hours.

It was, in retrospect, one of the oddest periods of my life. Outside the disinfectant-soaked house I was rebelling – undertaking the challenge of being one of our sleepy little town’s first ‘punks’ (What has she got all those safety pins on for? Has her elastic snapped somewhere, do you think?) Within its walls though, I was being initiated into something very, very old; discovering rites of passage to a sisterhood bound by more than kinship.

Anyway, I found the record soon after John’s death, lying among a pile of long forgotten 78s in his attic. It was, it has to be said, one of the wilder numbers there – most were Welsh hymns or classical choral pieces – but nothing in its title prepared me for the shivers I would experience as its words crackled from the sound box of the old wind-up gramophone…

I was passing by a churchyard in the city when I saw a beggar old and grey

With his hands outstretched he asked the folks for pity

And it made me sad to hear him say

Oh I wonder yes I wonder will the angels way up yonder

Will the angels play their harps for me?

For my heart is growing dreary and my feet are growing weary

Will the angels play their harps for me?

Oh a million miles I’ve travelled and a million sights I’ve seen and I’m ready for the glory soon to be

Oh I wonder yes I wonder will the angels way up yonder

Will the angels play their harps for me?’

The words alone don’t come near to expressing the dolefulness of the hillbilly number. Nor can I explain why it affected me so at a time when my standard listening fare was Blondie, The Clash and Siouxie and the Banshees (more of them later…) Perhaps its impact was simply the clashing of zeitgeists. I noticed though with a smile – whilst unsuccessfully looking for a link to an mp3 for you – that John Peel played it on one of his 2002 shows. And hey, if John Peel kens it… A sad passing, his, too – but at least the angels have more than harps to choose from now.

Funerals also remind me of a happier story of Uncle John and his sister Sal. Before his retirement John ran a small bakery and grocery shop. John and Sal were both due to attend a family wedding and Sal had been hovering anxiously in the shop for almost an hour waiting for John to close up and go and get changed. But more and more customers arrived – and John was very fond of his pounds, shillings and pence. Eventually Sal lost patience…

‘John Owen – are you coming to this wedding or not?’

‘Oh, you go on without me Sally fach,’ John replied – ‘it would be different, wouldn’t it, if it was a funeral…?’

The need for a good ‘send off’ is still felt deeply amongst impoverished modern day celts it would seem, for during a study carried out in 1997 on the effect of cuts in Social Fund funeral payments, Professor Mark Drakeford also concluded that providing a ‘proper’ funeral was a social pressure felt most deeeply by the poorest families. Part of his research looked at the use of a ‘cheap but decent’ funeral service set up by a Welsh local Council. It was, he discovered, largely middle class families who were taking advantage of the cut price offer – ‘bringing granny in in the Volvo’ – whilst the poor continued to pay the much higher prices demanded by private Undertakers.

Of Père-Lachaise, Beaux pères and albumen…

The green sod of the other side has not always been as verdant for those who make their living from death though; the New York Times reports in 1910 that the funeral mutes of Paris were threatening to strike; ‘They say that since the separation of state and church, the former has assumed supervision of the undertaking business, which formerly paid the lay officers of the city parishes around $800,000 annually, a large part of which went to their underlings, the mutes. These hired mourners complain that they must now eke out their earnings by holding out the hand of beggary to the real mourners…’

By 1913 the cuts were really biting; ‘it appeared that the (Paris) City Fathers had received many complaints as to the unshaven and unkempt appearance of these officials supplied by the Department… on their slender stipend such relatively expensive matters as hair-cutting and shaving could hardly be insisted on… Forthwith it was decreed that these functionaries should be trimmed into respectability at the City’s expense…

‘Certain barber establishments in the city were commissioned to tend the coque-morts free of charge – then the storm broke! That one (establishment)… should be thus favoured with municipal patronage whilst others were neglected cut at the most cherished traditions on which the Republic is based. The neglected barbers rose to a man and demanded a fair share of the trade. “Give tickets to the coque-morts,” they demanded, “that they may extend their patronage to whom they will, rather than encourage a pampered minority.” And so the matter was settled. Even this equitable arrangement was found to have its drawbacks in practice, owing to a regrettable tendency on the part of the coque-morts to sell their tickets and go unshaven as before.’ writes Puckle.

A more recent Parisian funeral brought home to me the sheer scale of the industry of death. It took place at the renowned Père-Lachaise cemetery, where Seurat, Balzac, Wilde, Piaff, Bizet, Patti, Callas, Stein and Toklas, Chopin, Delacroix, Pissarrot, Rossini and Jim Morrison all lie. Marcel Marceau too – now I bet he had mutes at his funeral.

We were there though not for a burial but for my father in law’s cremation – or so I thought. Those of us accustomed to death the British way stood there at the end of the service, waiting for the coffin to slip, glide or slide euphemistically away. Instead the French master of ceremonies announced that it would not be possible to burn Monsieur M… until 8.30 that evening, but that anyone wishing to attend could return then if they so wished;  a spectre at the feast which made it impossible not to clock-watch as his closest family and friends gathered, as pre-arranged, for a meal that evening. It helped not a jot that we had chosen a Moroccan restaurant where almost everything ordered seemed to arrive in its own little urn…

It was, though, not the most uncomfortable meal I’ve eaten in Paris. We’d been hospice visiting when the Metro unexpectedly went on strike, confining us, sad and starving, to a distinctly non touristy restaurant; a grim little bistro populated by caricatures from Gothic horror- cum- Royston Vasey.

That it was empty didn’t seem a good sign, but we were soon cheered when a large group of obviously local people crowded in after us. Cheered until, that is, we clocked that they were all male, that there were thirteen of them, that they were all dressed in black and that they were each carrying an identical small dark suitcase. Real disquiet set in though when a second group of thirteen identically accessorized men walked in and sat down to eat with no acknowledgement whatsoever of the other party’s presence.

Trying to reassure ourselves that they were probably just rival sales team from some sombre suitcase symposium, we studied the menu. The vampish waitress appeared to have absolutely no English and we didn’t have technical French. When we asked then, falteringly, about the house ‘special’, she returned with the cook – a woman of indistinguishable age and behemoth proportions, her rolls of blubber trussed by a blood-spattered apron. In her hand she grasped a meat cleaver which she proceeded to use as an aide-illustoire, pointing her way through the menu with attitude – and no English either. We gained, though, the impression that there was a lot of offal involved.

Now I’m not squeamish where offal is concerned – I’ve tried most British offal bar tripe and most of it I’ve enjoyed. I’d learned, by this time though, that the French eat offal I’d never even dreamed of; I still remember the evening the waiter managed to discover – half way through my meal – that the English word for what Madame was eating was ‘gizzards’. For my first course I eventually then ordered ‘œuf en cocotte’ which I thought I knew was a (safe) egg baked in a ramekin, sometimes with a ‘lid’ of cream on top.

The food arrived. Ramekin? Check. Contents? Yes, a layer of cream. Things looked promising.  When I inserted my fork and brought it up towards my mouth though, very little followed. In fact all that did was a viscous, translucent string of albumen. As it hung from the prongs it whispered – in English – that the egg hidden under the milky pool was still raw.

It was one of those royal ‘what exactly do you do?’ moments. Most unpalatable dishes can at least be pushed around your plate and semi hidden by a serviette to make them look as if they’ve been partially eaten. This, though, no matter what I did to it, refused to look like anything but a ramekin full to the brim of white. The more I thought of what lay beneath the more I needed to retch, but even if I’d been able to countenance a few mouthfuls, how on earth would I have conveyed them to my mouth?

‘You’re going to have to explain’ I hissed to Tom as Morticia walked past our table for the umpteenth time, eying my still untouched œuf with suspicion. ‘I don’t know how to…’ he hissed back. ‘The closest I can get is this egg is naked – do you want to try explaining that to Madame Cleaver?’ No, on reflection I didn’t…

In desperation I tried to ‘accidentally’ knock it over, but discovered that ramekins have remarkably stable bases and low centres of gravity. I even considered leaping to my feet in mock rage with my husband, capsizing the table in the process, but love for Tom’s features as they’re currently arranged and a glance at our fellow eaters persuaded me against any action that might prompt them to come to the assistance of a damsel in distress. In the end all I managed was a limp explanation that I was suddenly not hungry – ‘soudainement je n’ai pas faim…’ – leaving Mme. Adams looking at me sadly as if I was the oddball in the refectory.  She would, actually, have made an excellent paid mourner.

Of kith, kin and keening…

Whilst funeral mutes were almost always male, the mourners were usually women. Purely co-incidental, traditional, or, perhaps, indicative of the fact that men never seem to know quite what to say at these awkward times? Puckle explains the gendered division of duties by saying that ‘women are more given to the display of emotional grief… In this capacity their professional shrieks have echoed down the ages.’

I want to look though at quite a distinctive group of wailing women – the ones skilled in the celtic practice of ‘keening’. The English ‘keen‘ is derived from the Irish ‘caoine‘ (lament), with echoes in the Scots Gaelic ‘caoin‘, the Manx ‘keayney‘ and the Welsh ‘cwyn‘. The Dublin Penny Journal in 1833 notes though that ‘the word in the Irish language as originally and more correctly written is ‘cine’… which makes it almost identical with the Hebrew word ‘cina’ which signifies lamentation or weeping with clapping of hands‘. None of these should be confused with the latest offering by the popular beat combo Keane, no matter how many connections can be made with things musical or lamentable…

We would seem, then, to be considering an extremely old tradition. Indeed some say that the first woman to keen was none other than Bridget or Bride herself, loudly lamenting the kebab-ing of her son Ruadan on a javelin (Celtic Myths and Legends – Squire 1905). References to improvised poetry and song being performed over the dead occur in Irish literature from the 8th Century on and early visitors to Ireland – including Giraldus Cambrensis in the 12th Century – also found the practice worthy of mention, an indication that however we lamented our dead in Wales, it differed from – was perhaps  less obvious and public than – the ways of our neighbours across the sea.

The time for keening seemed to vary, but all seemed agreed that there was no place for it at the deathbed or even immediately after passing. Custom dictated that it was not until the corpse had been properly laid out and the soul of the departed had had time to make its peace with the afterlife that the wailing could begin – some adding that to keen earlier might attract the hell hounds. There were various keening slots on the pre-interment bill’s running order – as the warm-up act for the wake, around the coffin during the wake, on the arrival of any new mourner, just before the coffin was closed, on the morning of the funeral and whilst the coffin was being carried from the deceased’s home to the graveyard.

Some also describe keening taking place in the graveyard, with one of the most evocative accounts coming from J M Synge’s ‘Aran Islands‘ (1907). His description of a turn of the century funeral on Inishmaan offers a particularly valuable window on the past because of the isolated nature of the island’s predominantly Gaelic speaking community – it seems likely that the practice he witnessed would had been unchanged for centuries.

After Mass this morning an old woman was buried. She lived in the cottage next to mine, and more than once before noon I heard a faint echo of the keen. I did not go to the wake for fear my presence might jar upon the mourners, but all last evening I could hear the strokes of a hammer in the yard, where, in the middle of a little crowd of idlers, the next of kin laboured slowly at the coffin. To-day, before the hour for the funeral, poteen was served to a number of men who stood about upon the road, and a portion was brought to me in my room. Then the coffin was carried out sewn loosely in sailcloth, and held near the ground by three cross-poles lashed upon the top. As we moved down to the low eastern portion of the island, nearly all the men, and all the oldest women, wearing petticoats on their heads … came out and joined in the procession.

‘While the grave was being opened the women sat among the flat tombstones, bordered with a pale fringe of early bracken and all began the wild keen, or crying for the dead. Each old woman, as she took her turn in the leading recitative, seemed possessed for the moment with a profound ecstasy of grief, swaying to and fro, and bending her forehead to the stone before her, while she called out to the dead with a perpetually recurring chant of sobs.

‘All round the graveyard other wrinkled women, looking out from under the deep red petticoats that cloaked them, rocked themselves with the same rhythm, and intoned the inarticulate chant that is sustained by all as an accompaniment…

‘The morning had been beautifully fine, but as they lowered the coffin into the grave, thunder rolled overhead, and hailstones hissed among the bracken. In Inishmaan one is forced to believe in a sympathy between man and nature, and at this moment, when the thunder sounded a death-peal of extraordinary grandeur above the voices of the women, I could see the faces near me stiff and drawn with emotion.

‘When the coffin was in the grave, and the thunder had rolled away across the hills of Clare, the keen broke out again more passionately than before.’

The content of the keen seems to have been a mixture of traditional laments, more personalised content about the deceased, their life and achievements and a communal, high-pitched wailing. Something along the lines of:

‘O why did you leave us and where have you gone,

You, yes you Mike of Tralee,

Death claims us all, but why leave us now,

Your friends and your dear wife Maggie?

Across death’s dark river then Mike hear the call of your

9 bairns, 10 yews and 8 kine

We wish you had waited… Why you could have won

Your place in heaven any time…’


O why did he leave us and where has he gone

And what are we going to do next?

The passing of Michael has left us all sad

Indeed you could say we were vexed….

Ullaloo… ullaloo’

I do, of course, a great disservice to the skill of the keener there; an act unwise given that many ‘bean caoinadh’ or keening woman was probably the canniest old crone of her locality. Ladies I, Jude of Pembrokeshire, apologise unreservedly.

For anyone wondering about the ‘Ullaloo’ element above, the tongue- in -cheek glossary to Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth (1800) offers the following information:

‘WHILLALUH. – Ullaloo, Gol, or lamentation over the dead…

A full account of the Irish Gol, or Ullaloo, and of the Caoinan or Irish funeral song, with its first semichorus, second semichorus, full chorus of sighs and groans, together with the Irish words and music, may be found in the fourth volume of the TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL IRISH ACADEMY. For the advantage of LAZY readers, who would rather read a page than walk a yard, and from compassion, not to say sympathy, with their infirmity, the Editor transcribes the following passages:-

‘….It has been affirmed of the Irish, that to cry was more natural to them than to any other nation, and at length the Irish cry became proverbial… In the twelfth century…  they applied the musical art… to the orderly celebration of funeral obsequies by dividing the mourners into two bodies, each alternately singing their part, and the whole at times joining in full chorus….  The relations and keepers (SINGING MOURNERS) ranged themselves in two divisions, one at the head, and the other at the feet of the corpse…

‘The chief bard of the head chorus began by singing the first stanza, in a low, doleful tone, which was softly accompanied by the harp: at the conclusion, the foot semichorus began the lamentation, or Ullaloo, from the final note of the preceding stanza, in which they were answered by the head semichorus; then both united in one general chorus. The chorus of the first stanza being ended, the chief bard of the foot semichorus began the second Gol or lamentation, in which he was answered by that of the head; and then, as before, both united in the general full chorus. Thus alternately were the song and choruses performed during the night.

‘The genealogy, rank, possessions, the virtues and vices of the dead were rehearsed, and a number of interrogations were addressed to the deceased; as, why did he die? If married, whether his wife was faithful to him, his sons dutiful, or good hunters or warriors? If a woman, whether her daughters were fair or chaste? If a young man, whether he had been crossed in love; or if the blue-eyed maids of Erin treated him with scorn?’

Edgeworth also tells us that whereas ‘formerly the metrical feet of the Caoinan were much attended to…on the decline of the Irish bards these feet were gradually neglected, and the Caoinan fell into a sort of slipshod metre amongst women.

‘It is curious to observe how customs and ceremonies degenerate. The present Irish cry, or howl, cannot boast of such melody… they begin to cry – Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh! Agh! Agh! raising their notes from the first OH! to the last AGH! in a kind of mournful howl… Certain old women, who cry particularly loud and well are in great request…’

Certain even older Irish women were also associated with keening though – none other but the Banshees – albeit without Siouxie.

The name ‘Banshee’ comes from ‘Bean Sidhe’ or ‘fairy woman’. Tradition has it that the oldest families of Ireland had connections with their own Banshee; she would not only warn them of death with her unearthly wailing but would also perform the keen at their funerals. Her Scottish equivalent is the ‘Bean Nighe’ – an old woman encountered at fords washing the bloodstained garments of those who are about to die.

My mind-picture of a Banshee has always been of a frightening old hag, but apparently they often appeared as beautiful young women with long golden or auburn tresses. Their eyes were red, yes, but only from their tears. Usually benign, they were only to be feared if crying. Is that another chorus of Trevor Howards I hear wailing ‘just like most women then!’?

Of fiddling and funerals…

Coming to terms then with the fact that I can no longer have a Bean Sidhe, a Bean Caoinad, a Mute or a Keeper at my funeral I was delighted to discover that I can still have a funerary violinist. I’d been surfing one night and was delighted to come across the Guild of Funerary Violinists at www.rohan-k.co.uk/guild.html. The site itself will tell you much more than I can about the ancient profession as well as allowing you to listen to some samples of traditional fiddling for funerals.

There is, of course, fiddling at funerals and fiddling at funerals. My colleague Sharon, for example, doesn’t have great luck with them. Her earliest mishap was arriving late for one and sidling her way upstairs in the chapel where she finally found a seat in the front row of the balcony amidst a throng of dark-suited fellow mourners. She didn’t realise her mistake until the male voice choir surrounding her rose as a man to perform their solo tribute to the deceased.

The fiddliest funeral I’ve been to was last year – a proper old welsh country funeral conducted at the height of an absolute deluge. The only place to leave cars was some distance from the chapel so that by the time the mourners got inside each and every one was soaked to the skin. Thoughtfully though, the keepers of the chapel had turned the heating full on; that we didn’t all pass out if not away from the naphtha filled fog of steam that quickly formed was in itself a small miracle.

The tribute to the deceased was long – three ministers were taking part and one of them decided to use the funeral as a platform for his views on Shambo, a sacred bull suspected to be suffering from TB in a small Hindu community just down the road. At the time the Welsh Assembly Government had just stayed the execution order on the friesian but the minister of the chapel wanted blood and wanted it NOW.

With the bull finally out of the way it came time to stand to sing the final hymn – the point at which a good half of those attending discovered that they were glued to their seats. Not in the ‘excited by the oratory’ meaning, actually stuck to their pews, the combination of heat and dampness having reacted with the old varnish. As I rose – more determinedly –  I experienced an unmistakeable sensation – that of ripping yarn – yet all I could do was stand there, singing ‘Arglwydd dyma Fi’ (‘Lord here I am’) hoping that He had a sense of humour and praying that those in the pew immediately behind were short sighted to a man. There are, after all, brief encounters and brief encounters…

P.S. In case, after following the link above you – yes you – start getting excited by the prospect of having a violinist at your funeral, you should also look here… http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article600440.ece . Yes, sadly, the Guild of Funerary Violinists is an extremely elaborate hoax, the quite brilliant brainchild of a busker from Brighton. Hats off to him…


~ by Jude on October 12, 2008.

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