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The Funeral Ceremonies and Custom Rites of Ireland

The Funeral Ceremonies and Custom Rites of Ireland
© Photograph by Tony Lillo

As all religions are based upon the belief in a future life, so the funeral customs of a people, as embodying their conception of the nature of this future life and the necessary preparation for entering upon it, furnish the surest index of the character of the popular religion.

In the lower stages of fetishism, where all the ideas of a future life are vague and unformed, no special abiding place is assigned to the disembodied spirit, which is supposed to hover unseen about its accustomed haunts, to the sore annoyance of its former friends among the living. Hence the funeral ceremonies are intended rather get rid of the troublesome ghost of the deceased than to provide for his comfort in the next world or to perpetuate his memory in this. For this purpose the Fijians and Australians tied the feet of the corpse that the ghost might not be able to rise out of the grave,1 other savages returned by a roundabout way from the grave to the village so that the spirit might be unable to find the road back, while still others compelled the widow to bathe in the river immediately after the burial of her husband, in order to “wash off the ghost,” or perhaps rather throw it off the scent. This probably explains also the Indian custom of changing the name upon the death of near friends and the universal unwillingness of savages to pronounce the name of the dead, a dislike which some tribes carry to such an extreme as even to discontinue the use of any words which might suggest the unseen presence.

As fetichism took on a higher development the floating ideas of the earlier stages were combined into a mythologic system in which the spirit world was localized and the future life became a shadowy counterpart of this, with the same passions, pleasures, pursuits and necessities.

Accordingly the soul about to set out for the land of the dead must be provided with food during the journey-which among the northern Indian tribes was generally supposed to occupy four days-with weapons of war and the chase, with cups, dishes and other utensils, with dresses, beads and rings for personal adornment, with horses to ride and slaves to do its bidding. A remarkable survival of this idea among the coloured people of Washington is exemplified at Graceland Cemetery, where the graves of children are covered with the toys prized by their owners in life, from dolls and sets of toy dishes down to whips, balls and old oyster cans.

The animism of the savage recognized the existence of a spirit in every object about him, from rocks, trees and animals down to the commonest articles of every-day use. He knew that in death, also the body remained behind, an invisible enlivening something was gone, and according to his philosophy this animal escaped from the mouth with the last breath of the dying man or past out from the gaping wound with his lifeblood. When the pot was broken, also the fragments might be joined together again, the clear, musical ring was gentle animal that had escaped and the pot was dead. Reasoning from these premises he shattered the bowls, tore the garments and slaughtered the dogs, horses and slaves about the tomb in order that their imprisoned spirits might be released the more quickly to follow their master to the land of shades.

When a man’s importance grew to be directly commensurate with the extent of his possessions in goods, horses or slaves, the same principle was held to apply to the next world, and it became a matter of duty and pride with the survivors to contribute to the dignity of the dead chief by adding to the number of the funeral offerings and swelling the train of victims, until, as in the case of a Dahoman or a Zulu king, we find whole armies butchered that their shades may accompany the dead tyrant to the spirit land. The duty of the slave became the privilege of the nearest friend of the deceased, and led the Natchez Sun and the Hindu Suttee alike to sacrifice themselves over the corpse of the loved one that their spirits might be united in the other life.

In the primitive community, a man’s acts were good or bad only as they affected the welfare of the tribe at large, and any wrong-doer met swift punishment at the hands of the aggrieved individual or clan. With the development of civilization came the idea of abstract morality or virtue, and the establishment of a code of morals whose infraction might merit punishment not only here but also hereafter. This involved exclusion from the abode of the happier shades, but as the idea of a hell was of slow growth, the natural result was the doctrine of metempsychosis, the most common form of which belief held that the soul passed a probationary period as the unwilling tenant of the body of some animal-a horse, a dog, a wolf or even a worm-suffering all the animal vicissitudes while retaining its human and spiritual nature, and transferred from the body of one animal to that of another, by a series of changes varying in number and character according to the degree of punishment merited, until, purified by suffering, it was allowed to return once more to its original human body and enter with it into happiness.

It was an essential point of this doctrine that the body must be preserved from decay, or rather from dissolution into the elements, otherwise, the soul, unable to enter again into its earthly tabernacle, would be compelled to return to its animal prison or become a lonely wanderer through all eternity. Hence the pains were taken among early initiations, by embalming or by the erection of huge funeral mounds, to prevent the destruction of the body or the scattering of its ashes.

A similar idea seems to underlie the belief that a failure to perform the customary funeral rites doomed the soul to wander in outer darkness. This belief seems to have been general among the northern Indians, as evinced by the desperate efforts they invariably made to bring off their dead from the field of battle, by their anxiety to “cover the bones” of their murdered friends, and by the Iroquois custom of driving away the ghost of a tortured prisoner with shouts and hideous noises after the blackened and mutilated corpse had been thrown out from the village to lie unburied in the forest. It was evidently held also by the ancient Irish, as is shown by some of their old popular tales.

1.
Lorimer Fison, Fijian Burial Customs, in Jour. Anth. Inst., x, London, 1881; A. W. Howitt, On Some Australian Beliefs, Jour. Anth. Inst., xiii, 190, London, 1884.
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