Yes, I’m aware I inexplicably did not post last week. DON’T JUDGE ME. I was…busy. If you’re noticing a pattern as far as the weeks I tend to accidentally miss always being folk weeks…it’s ’cause it takes absolutely forever to write a folk song post. I have most of the songs I use in my memory bank, but I often have to do research on their origin if I have not yet done so (which I have with many, but not all). Additionally, I have to decide which version to pass along and link everything. Both of which take a while. *shrugs* Anyway. This week, we are back with a sort of folk thing with a bit of a back story.
Ahem. So I took English 112 at a secular community college, and it sucked.
I mean…(content warning)…we were supposed to read Dickens for the novel, but the teacher decided to switch it last minute to a modern book that was pretty much one r*pe scene after another. 400 pages of graphic s*xual stuff was not something I enjoyed. (content done.)
But not only did we have to read this hellish book, we had to write our term research paper on it.
At which point I was like ‘nope’ and edged my way around the rules just far enough that I was technically within bounds of the assignment but really just wrote a paper on the continuity of burial customs among different folk cultures.
I didn’t really get to have fun with that paper, though–the research was fun but the paper itself was not–because I had to drag everything I wrote back round to that stupid book.
So behold some self-gratification. Vengeance is mine. I am now going to edit and rejigger that research paper to fit with the general theme of my blog. I mean, it already kinda does, but I’m going to remove most of the stuff about that hellion of a book and sprinkle it with some more folk music and fun things + generally more casual tone. See this as an extension of my ramble on Halloween and Christianity in this post here. And feel free to skip this post, ‘cuz we’re about to nerd out about death and I understand that’s not for everybody.
There is one thing every human on this great, green world holds in common, despite every difference in opinion, culture, nationality, and belief. Someday, the clock of each and every soul will wind down, and all that will remain of those colorful lives will be ashes and dust. Every single person on this earth will die. It is rare that one retains consciousness of this truth, but in times of war and turmoil, even the most comfortable life can be turned upside down, as humanity is constantly dangling over the jaws of Death.
Thank God, I have not lived through war and turmoil, but I have found myself keenly aware of the fact for quite a while all the same. I think it is due, in large part, to my close contact with death at such a young age, as my father passed away when I was very small. But I’m sure the amount of time I’ve spent in Thornrose Cemetery in latter years is not doing my morbidity any favors.
(obligatory ‘autumn in Thornrose pic’ because y’all need to see this beauty.)
Overall, I’ve found that much contemplation of death inspires one to ask, if all humanity holds death in common regardless of religion, culture, or country of origin, what rituals for death are common to all? And how does that illustrate universal belief about death? While this post is not intended to be an exhaustive study of the topic, some things have become clear when looking at a wide variety of unrelated cultures. Something I’ve often found interesting when contemplating mythological and folk lore similarities and differences in between totally unelated cultures is the concept of G.K. Chesterton’s keyhole. In one or the other of the great fellow’s books, he was known to say something to the extent of “The world is a very oddly shaped keyhole into which only the key that is Christianity happens to fit.”
The thing is, he’s quite right. And pre-Christian (and even post Christian) mythology and folk tales seem to prove it. The thing is, they all have little oddities and corners in common. Name a mythology without some sort of ‘Fate’ figure. I’ll wait. Or one without a great flood. I’ll wait. The point is, there’s clearly a keyhole there. And the striving after the right shaped key in different world mythologies often makes even more clear why it is that Christianity is just right.
I find this to be particularly true regarding mortuary practices. While it is true that mortuary practices differ from place to place, it seems that the common origin of many unrelated cultures’ mortuary beliefs and rites is not, in fact, honor towards the dead (although that is part of it), but catharsis and acceptance for the living. Which makes sense, in a Christian context. Death isn’t about…well, the dead. And Christians and non Christians, for centuries and centuries, have strived to understand what it is about–to the living, I mean. Which seems to be to be one reason why there’s such a focus on the living rather than the dead in traditional death practices.
First off, disclaimer: It’s very true that if one looks at the different cultures around the world, one sees many expressions of mortuary belief that are polar opposites of each other. For instance, in Grimm’s Fairy Tales (which, though it is fiction, is an invaluable manifesto of European Christian culture), there is a story entitled “The Shroud”, wherein a mother’s excessive grieving over her child’s death causes his restless ghost to return and beg her to stop weeping so he can rest peacefully. (Grimm 371, relevant folk song is one of my favorite Gaelic Sean’ Nos pieces. Here’s a short version of it; I invite you to close your eyes and listen to it, cuz it is…spine-chilling. And here is the Mainly Norfolk on the corresponding English song, The Unquiet Grave–if you scroll down the entry there’s an Askew Sisters version of the song embedded.) But in the Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife, author Linda Crowder reveals that in traditional Chinese culture, excessive weeping is considered an essential component of the funeral procession, as it is thought to draw the ghost towards the grave and keep it from wandering aimlessly about the world. (260) Crowder also mentions the lavish pomp and circumstance that accompanies funeral processions in traditional Chinese culture. There is incense, paper money thrown about, a “spirit flag”, as many mourners as possible, and often one or more live bands. (Crowder 259, 260) This is a very stark contrast to the mortuary traditions of Orkney, as related by Orcadian native and archeologist Sigurd Towrie. The funeral procession is a staple in Orcadian mortuary practice as well, but it is an extremely solemn and severe occasion; among other rules, it allows no women, specifies only one or two particular places where rest is allowed to the coffin bearers, and strictly forbids speaking the deceased’s name. (Towrie, “Funerary Customs and Traditions”) So cultural traditions can vary significantly from place to place.
But, differences acknowledged, there are a startling amount of similarities. Even if the purpose of a ritual is not the same from place to place, many cultures perform the same or similar funeral rituals as those totally different from them. In Orkney, the corpse is turned to face the sun before burial. (Towrie, “Funerary Customs and Traditions”) Logic would indicate this originating in Celtic worship of the sun as a deity. But in Western European culture, particularly Catholicism, as passed down by oral tradition, all corpses are buried facing east so that when the sun rises at the Second Coming and the dead awake, they may rise facing the returning Christ. (Relevant folk song: the trad Old Churchyard. I’ve discovered a new version of it that combines the best elements of the two versions I’ve known previously (the peaceful hush of the Wailin’ Jennys + the more Catholic lyrics of Lady Maisery) and I really love it, so 100/10 recommend that as well.) Both cultures bury towards the sun, but they do so for quite different reasons. An opposite example, one of similar values with differing manifestations, comes from the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying, where it is mentioned that certain Native American tribes would burn the dead person’s belongings to keep its ghost from returning. (Meyers 100) Similarly, in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, there is a story entitled “The Stolen Pennies”, wherein it is implied that the deceased will return as a ghost until any physical effects of earthly sin have been erased; thus it falls to the living to remove those effects so their loved one can rest in peace. (Grimm 370, 371) Both cultures are interested in keeping ghosts from returning, but they have different ways of going about it.
So now we get to the meat of it: what mortuary rituals are held in common everywhere, and what beliefs do those rituals symbolize? It has been established that, even though they may have different ways of seeing the matter, ghosts are held in common, in some fashion or other, by both European Christians and Native Americans. The same goes for the Chinese (Crowder 258) and the Orcadians (Towrie, “Binding the Dead”). For the latter three cultures, this belief in ghosts or restless spirits is mostly fearful, or at the very least, cautious. The attitude towards ghosts in the Christian tradition seems to be more sad than anything. Which cuts back to the whole oddly shaped key thing again. Catholicism’s belief in ghosts seems to mostly view them restless souls–for one of two reasons. Black and the white reasons, if you will–“if you’re not with me, you’re against me.” Ill reason: they had some dreadful deed done to them by the living and are haunting the living in vengeance as a result. There’s a shocking amount of folk songs corresponding to this reason. I talked about the modern song The Mariner’s Revenge a couple of weeks ago, but there’s quite a goodly amount of trad songs corresponding to the same idea. Take, for instance, The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter. Or maybe don’t take it, if you don’t like freakish songs containing the murder of a pregnant woman and her ghostly wrath upon her murderer. Or take Young Hunting, also trad, and English, ‘cept it’s weirdly popular in America (this is a long + live version, by James Findlay of England). There isn’t exactly a vengeful ghost in this one, but there’s certainly some vengeful supernatural things happening with the dead guy’s body, in order to indicate who murdered him.
So that’s ghost song/belief style a. Style b, the more benign version, is the type that involves a ghost coming back to visit or assure loved ones. There’s quite a collection of these as well. Some that I’d recommend are the well known Irish ‘She Moved Through the Fair‘, and the English ‘The Shooting of His Dear‘ + ‘The Holland Handkerchief‘, all trads.
Cutting back to our multicultural discussion of ghosts and restless spirits, while they do seem to be a consistent concept world wide, all the cultures have different ways of dealing with it; the Chinese with their spirit flags and their pomp and circumstance (Crowder 260), the Orcadians with their covered mirrors and locked-up cats (Towrie, “Funerary Customs and Traditions”), and the Navajo with their swept-out footsteps and their fearful avoidance of funerals. (Meyers 102, 103) Regardless, there seems to be a conviction across a wide variety of unrelated cultures that while death is the end of a person’s body, the spirit survives. What lies beyond is what is debated, as well as what it remains to the living to do for the immortal spirit, but no matter if they are entirely universal or not, it seems that in every corner of this cold world, there is belief in ghosts.
Somewhat similarly, the tradition of a wake, or a watch over the body just post-expiration seems to be a nearly worldwide phenomenon. In fact, the watch over the body in some places was considered a celebration of sorts: “…to the Orcadians of yesteryear, the task was seen as a great honour…was not necessarily a solemn occasion, and often involved much drinking and hilarity.” (Towrie, “Funerary Customs and Traditions”) The custom is also common to Hispanics, and is inclusive of both joy and sorrow. (Meyers 101) Christian Europe takes the tradition a step farther; as illustrated in “The Grave Mound”, if a person has been wicked during their lifetime, then a guard may be left by their grave overnight the first three nights they are under earth, to avoid their being taken to Hell. (Grimm 607-609) On the other hand, the Native American fear of ghosts has led that ethnic group to bury their dead immediately to avoid restless spirits. (Meyers 100) Still, overall, the custom of a wake seems to be fairly universal. It seems fairly dependent on the culture as to what the custom means. However, at its base level, the leaving of a body in a house for any amount of time before burial seems intended to bring the friends and family of the loved one to acceptance of the deceased’s departure, as well as to sober thoughts of their own dwindling lifespan, and occasionally, to happy contemplation of the earthly life of the deceased.
Another thing that seems omnipresent in traditional mortuary practice is the funeral feast. This tradition is certainly kept by the Afghani Islamic folk, as can be seen in A Thousand Splendid Suns [the terrible novel that we had to read; I’m leaving this mention in ‘cuz it’s kinda necessary]. As mentioned above, even though the corpses of the two deceased characters are not available for a burial proper, the family still has a tremendous funeral feast for them. The whole neighborhood, friends and strangers both, gathers to remember the dead, and it is very much a communal tragedy. (Hosseini 138) In Orcadian tradition, it was considered inappropriate if the funeral feast was not a lavishly grand event. (Towrie, “Funerary Customs and Traditions”) African American traditional rite puts the funeral feast as an essential part of death ritual, and it is often an extremely celebratory affair. (Meyers 101) Regardless of the culture, the funeral feast is an occasion to remember a dead person’s life with mirth as well as mourning, and to join together with still-living loved ones to find solace in the grieving process.
In fact, that seems to be the real common denominator. “Graves are for the dead, but graveyards are for the living.” (Grimes 121) All the practices mentioned so far, while necessary in some ways for the dead, seem to be mostly intended as catharsis for the living.
If you look back to my ‘ghost song’ discussion above, I’d like you to take heed to the fact that both versions of ‘ghosts returning’ are not, in fact, focused on the dead, but on the living. The ghost returns to punish or to comfort the living–but death is not the focus. Life is–live souls, as well as soul-inhabited bodies, which is the same focus of funerary practices around the world for centuries. (I’d now like to draw your attention to the gorgeous modern folk song Bones in the Ocean. Probably the most fitting overall theme song for this post, and one of my all time favorites.)
However, these practices are not just intended as a catharsis, though, but also a lesson. The living need assurance that the spirits of the dead will not return to haunt them, but they also need the reminder that they will one day be solely spirit themselves. They need to process grief by one last watch over their loved one, but they also need to see a solid example of how one day every heart stops beating. They need to have one more farewell feast to celebrate the life of the deceased, but they also need a wholesome, grounded return to the world of the living, until their time comes to follow. Ghosts, wakes, feasts–all these beliefs and practices serve a double role. It allows the living to farewell their dear ones, while at the same time coming to terms with their own mortality.
For they, too, are mortal; their sand will dwindle, and run out one day, just the same as their loved ones. Death is the common denominator. Mortuary practice around the world, whether Native American, Chinese, Hispanic, Orcadian, European, Afghani, or African, allows humanity to realize that fact–and to realize, most of all, that just because death is inescapable does not mean it is not natural and even wholesome, in a way. Nobody puts that better than the Africans, whose traditions, at their core, hold that death is just one more part of an ever-churning cycle. (Meyers 101) It is as simple as the tide going out, or as the sun setting. On every coastline in the world, the tide goes out, and on every horizon, the sun must set. So shall death come to all.
The problem with the previous two paragraphs (which were bald-faced, unedited from the paper I had to write in a supposedly ‘unbiased’ non-Catholic fashion) is that they acknowledge only the mortal facts. It’s the same problem with all those funerary practices I discussed above–aside from the Christian ones. Funeral practices are the living’s search for meaning in death–but without Christianity, they will find none. Something I’ve always found to be a particularly striking example of Chesterton’s keyhole is the old tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus is, in Greek myths, one of the best of all men. Not a single tale of him doing something wrong or even violent (that I know of). You could see him as Adam. His Eve, Eurydice, was bitten by a snake. But he could not save her from death. Not even descending into Hell in an attempt to bring her back up, not even making the rocks weep and the stones split with his lament could save her.
Orpheus is Adam.
But he was not Christ.
Because the Greeks didn’t have Christ.
Which is why that story feels woefully flat. It’s the Greek’s search for a savior–somebody to bring Eve back to life. But in Greek mythology, the most powerful beings of all are the Fates, who snip the thread of life–not even the gods can thwart them. And Adam [Orpheus] certainly can’t. Eve is dead. Gone. It’s over. And no lament, no wake, no funeral feast will bring her back to life.
I remember one version of the tale where, as Orpheus turned around, dooming Eurydice to return to Hades, she attempts to say some words of comfort or farewell. Like the ghosts in the songs above. But her words of comfort are not enough. Because nothing is enough. Because death will never be life and not even the gods can thwart the fates.
But all is not lost–not now. It once was, perhaps, but no longer. The gods can’t thwart the fates but the Mother of God and her resplendent Son have crushed Fate beneath their heels.
I’m reminded again of the Old Churchyard, as the key emerges, in all its wondrously odd-shaped glory,
“I fear not to enter that dark, lonely tomb
Where Our Savior has laid and conquered the gloom.
I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine shall burst through these prisons of clay.
And Saint Gabriel’s trumpet, and the Voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the Old Churchyard.”
I’ve got one last thing to add to this monster post, and it’s one of my favorite folk songs + my fan folktion version of it. That be the Crow on the Cradle. It’s an odd revival period thing written by Sydney Carter when Christianity was spiraling into tepidity and the keyhole was once again more apparent than the key. A sort of despair over the inevitability of death and war, as personified by the singer of the song–a crow, a carrion bird.
I really love the song, but it’s…kinda not the right view of the thing. So, for Inktober 21, when one of the prompts was ‘raven’, I wrote an alternative [badly written] version. One where the ballad singer was still a carrion bird, but rather than a raucous crow, a wise, or ‘far-seeing’ raven (per folk tradition of the bird).
I’m going to put up the Lady Maisr’y version, then do a side by side line comparison of my version and the real version. At the bottom, I’ll put a recorded version of mine, as well as a link to bibliography for all the works cited above, in case somebody actually wants that.
The original lines will be italicized; my lines will be bold.
The sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn–now is the time for a child to be born.
same as above.
He’ll laugh at the moon, he’ll cry for the sun, and if he’s a boy, he will carry a gun.
Should he be a boy and carry a gun, he’ll follow in footsteps of those who have come.
REFRAIN: Sang the crow on the cradle/Sang the far-seeing raven
And if it should be this baby’s a girl, never you mind if her hair doesn’t curl.
same as above.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, and a bomber above her wherever she goes.
For she shall have hardships wherever she goes, but happiness, too, as time itself shows.
The crow on the cradle, the black on the white–somebody’s baby is born for a fight.
The far-seeing raven shall call in the night ‘everyone’s baby is born for a fight.’
The crow on the cradle, the white on the black–somebody’s baby is not coming back.
The far seeing raven will call in the day ‘Heaven can whisk baby’s tears far away…’
Your mother and father will sweat and they’ll save to build you a coffin and dig you a grave.
Your mother and father will sweat and they’ll save but they cannot save any one from the grave.
So hushabye little one, never you weep…for we’ve got a song to put baby to sleep.
But never you mind when you’re bound for a fight, for the Master shall come and He’ll make it all right.
Bring me my gun and I’ll shoot that bird dead–that’s what your mother and father once said.
Bring me my gun and I’ll shoot that bird dead–in anger your father and mother once said.
The crow on the cradle–what shall we do? These are the things we must leave up to you.
But though they shall shoot him, his words remain true and the path that you take will remain up to you.
As you may be able to tell, the two songs are more or less a juxtaposition in material (my version not nearly as masterfully done) between a despairing secular view of war and mortality and a hopeful Christian view of spiritual war and mortality.
Yep. You can infer whatever else you like because I’ve no more energy to explain it tonight.
So…that’s that. I shall be back next week with the next installment of Know the Novel, probably…
And now I’m leaving because if I thought a regular folk post takes forever to write…I’ve put probably 4 hours or more into this now, heh.
I like the fact that I’m complaining about it when it’s some of the most fun I’ve had in ages. I hope you guys have had some fun with it as well. 🙂 I know it’s odd and poorly written but I certainly enjoyed myself and I hope you dears did two.
P.S. Bibliography linked here in a Google Doc, if you’re curious.
3 replies on “A Bit of a Ramble on Folk Burials + other folk/Catholic myth thingummies (because Death = Hallowe’en…? Kinda?)”
This was really interesting, Grim! So, some good came out of that class, I guess. Stories like yours, though, are why I’m very hesitant to take any sort of English class…
All of the parallels you drew were fascinating, and I liked the songs which went with them, too! (The Unquiet Grave, especially.) I find the widespread belief in ghosts or spirits, and the concern with keeping them away from the living, especially thought-provoking, since in the Catholic view, if there’s any sort of ghost, it means something is wrong, and, at best, you need to pray for your relative to get out of purgatory. But that the fear/avoidance of ghosts is so widespread is interesting to me. I dunno. You’d think that if belief in a restful afterlife wasn’t so ingrained, some cultures would like ghosts?
“Orpheus is Adam. But he was not Christ.” GAH. Why did I not ever see this parallel before? DOWN TO THE SNAKE. It’s uncanny, really. That’s crazy.
I love your rewrite of The Crow on the Cradle, too! (The original isn’t half bad, either, even if it is from a very secular point of view…)
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Yes some good came out of it! A few good things, actually. 🙂 I made a couple of friends, one of whom I’ve gotten quite close to. It’s funny how mutual hatred of an atmosphere can draw like-minded people together.
It is really quite interesting. I’ve thought out that same scenario myself multiple times, and the conclusion I’ve more or less come to is that that fear of the ‘unquiet grave’, if you will, is another indication of the keyhole. Like…they knew something was off, but they were scared to actually find out what. And they worried that the restless spirits knew and were returning to punish them for their errors. Or something like. If that makes sense.
RIGHT??!! It’s honestly incredible. I credit the glorious musical Hadestown for brining that to my attention. Just because it’s such a beautifully written version of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale.
Thank you! And I absolutely love the original, so I get what you mean. I usually am not inclined to write an alt. version of a song unless I really love it. But yeah, that one has been one of my favorites for a while.
Thanks for stopping by, Sam! God bless you!
[…] from the point of view of trad folk songs about ghosts (to which topic I dedicated a large part of this post). In which case, I think it most likely that Charles’ wife Anne would be the type to be […]