If I Should Die Before I Wake:An Examination of Funerals and Grieving ... - by Cora Haas
18 October 2020
The human experience has many wonderful avenues, paths, and adventures. But it also has its fair share of the hard, bad, and downright terrible. Grief and death are simply part of life, and at some point, every person has to face it in one way or another. How we as a society handle our grief, how we honor our dead is not a uniquely human thing; elephants are known to mourn their lost family members and to visit their corpses, while some species of monkeys hug and comfort one another. However, the elaborate forms of grief and mourning created by humans, and the sheer variety, is truly astounding. From the hired wailing women of Irish keening to the intricate mummification practices in ancient Egypt to ensure preservation of the ba, there have been a strange array of funeral practices and grieving processes throughout history. By examining these practices, by seeing the threads that connect and the unique foundations that make them different, we are given an insight into the workings of the human mind. Not only that, but we are given insight into the beliefs and societal norms of a time period. We can see just how grief has evolved. By examining three distinct funeral practices – modern funerals, Irish keening, and Egyptian mummification – we can strive to gain new insight into the taboo subject of death; grief and how it is handled play key roles in our humanity and point to the ways in which societies adapt and change.
There is no one modern funeral; funerals are not a “one size fits all” process.
In fact, modern funerals keep getting more and more creative. While there are still plenty of traditional, religion led funeral services, there has also been a large push for the more personal. In 2004 the American Funeral Director magazine surveyed customers and found that 71% of respondents quote “did not want a traditional funeral” (Ramshaw 171). Likewise, the National Funeral Directors Association found that 62% of Baby Boomers wanted a “personalized funeral” (qtd in Ramshaw 171). In a 2010 Pastoral Psychology article, Elaine J. Ramshaw stated that the “equation of ‘meaningful’ with ‘personal’ is a giveaway of postmodern culture,” which is part of the reason behind this push. People associate traditional funerals with depression and bleakness, less a time to remember someone’s life but a time to dwell in the loss of their loved one. It does make sense then why so many people push for brighter celebrations of life. Gathering around with friends and family and sharing stories and laughter, holding one last event that embodied the kind of person that the deceased was. Interestingly enough though, Ramshaw believes that these personalized funerals have led to a more depersonalized grieving experience, stating that “part of what lies behind the resistance to the traditional funeral and the move towards celebrative memorial services is cultural death denial and grief avoidance” (174). Whether that is true or not remains to be seen, but it does appear that society has begun to move away from public grief.
Aside from funerals themselves changing, the methods of burial have also begun to shift to more personalized and unique methods. AARP magazine found that in 2016, “cremation surpassed traditional burial for the first time in the United States” (Pott). Cremation not only offers a cheaper alternative to traditional burial, but allows for families to hold onto a part of their deceased loved one or to spread their ashes in a favorite place they would otherwise not have been able to rest in. But that’s not all, there are trends of ashes being worked into jewelry, pressed into custom vinyl records, and even mixed with tattoo ink for memorial tattoos (Potts). Another trend in burials is green burials. Green burials are a homage to simpler funerals of the past, as well as a way to give back to the earth. In green burials, the deceased are left unembalmed and buried in biodegradable containers set directly into the ground (Potts). This allows for the body to go back into nature, to feed new life. These burials are not only less expensive than a traditional funeral, but far more sustainable (Potts). These are only a few examples, and there are dozens of other ways the deceased can be memorialized.
Modern American funerals are unique and ever-changing events. So how do they compare to practices of old?
While funerals are about honoring the dead, modern funerals are often more for those left behind than the one gone; acting as a final form of comfort. This is in stark contrast with what the ancient Egyptians believed. The practice of mummification is not exclusive to Egypt, but there is no doubt that that is where it is best known. The process of mummification is intensive and intricate; the organs, all except the heart, would be removed from the body and placed into decorative vessels, and the body would be drained of all fluids before being packed with salt and wrapped in cloth coverings. This would allow the body to be protected and to help prevent decomposition. This protection was not for the sake of the living, to quote Professor Mark Berkson Ph. D of Hamline University, “but to [protect] the deceased on his or her journey in the afterlife”. In ancient Egyptian culture, it was believed that there were two key factors to every person: the ka, or life force, and ba, one’s soul (Berkson). When a person died, their ka left the body upon death, but the ba stayed, only to be freed through prayers and rituals (Berkson). However, the ba would return nightly, and so it needed an intact vessel for it in itself to remain intact (Berkson). For this reason, it was vital that the body of the deceased stayed as preserved and identifiable as possible.
While mummification was practiced for many, many years, it was not necessarily the standard method for all. Mummification was expensive, and many people could not afford it – or at least not the whole process. Many commoners would have to opt to be partially mummified. For example, almost all mummies discovered have had their left sides eviscerated, but brain removal was reserved for more of the higher classes as it was very expensive (Brier). The tombs of mummies would often be filled with the goods their families believed they would need on the journey to the afterlife. In many cases, pets were euthanized and mummified to be buried with their masters (Berkson). Over the millennia that mummification was practiced, it is estimated that some 70 million people were mummified (Berkson). The Egyptian mummy has gone on to fascinate people, but what has now become the works of horror films and top visited museum exhibits was simply meant to be a ticket to the afterlife.
On another side of the spectrum, modern American funerals have become less about grief, if Ramshaw is to be believed. In American society grief is something that is private and is not often toted in public; “Grief has become private – something to be contained, something to be controlled” (“Songs for the Dead”). But in Ireland, in days of old, grief played a key part in the funeral process.
The image of a wailing woman in Irish culture often brings up the thought of the banshee, a harbinger of death who wails outside the windows of those doomed to die. However, the wailing woman also has a less known connotation – that of a Keener.
The idea of the Keener is not necessarily unique to Ireland, the position of the wailing women singing laments and working through grief can be found in many cultures: from Greece to Rome, the Middle East, and throughout the Islamic world (Classens). To quote Professor L. Juliana M. Classens, an Associate Professor of Old Testament at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, “the image of the wailing women, which is closely related to the metaphor of a God who weeps…in itself is a remarkable theological formulation, has the potential to serve as a powerful symbol of survival to injured people seeking to come to terms with tragedy” (64-65). However, Keening, which is derived from the Irish word caoineadh which means crying, is a unique and beautiful practice. In an issue of TheDublin Penny Journal from 1833, it was said of keening that, “the well known custom so long used in this country, of keening, or lamenting over the dead, is of the most remote antiquity” and that “this peculiarity has been noticed by almost every traveler who visited [Ireland]” (242). Yet keening is not something often heard of today.
So, then what exactly is keening? Well, Keening was a practice common to behold at Irish funerals up until the mid-20th century, in which women were paid to “scream, cry, and sing over a body, to embody the grief of the community” (“Songs for the Dead”). The professional Keeners were truly skilled individuals who drew upon their own experiences with trauma and grief to produce laments so raw it could be felt by everyone in the funeral party. Few recordings of the last of the Keeners exist, but those that do showcase the emotional rawness of their songs. In an interview conducted by BBC Radio 4’s Marie-Louise Muir, one individual explained it perfectly: “it takes things out of the mind in a sense and really focuses on what’s in the body… they’re bodily representatives of mortality” (“Song’s for the Dead”). Maggie Ilarhida, a resident of the Aran Islands which were one of the last places where Keening thrived, who experienced keening herself said that “it would take the heart out of you, that’s the reason that they done it, just to make you weep…but when it was done well, it was just beautiful… Just to sing them off on their journey.” (“Songs for the Dead”). These women held a place of power and honor and would often travel the island offering their services.
However, before there were Keeners, the role of the funeral singer was left to the bards, who were normally employed under a specific chief or noble (O’G 242). It was as the Irish bard declined that women began to take up the role as Keeners. Perhaps the loss of the more stylized bardic performances was unappealing to nobles because the practice became more associated with the peasantry or in some cases old families of Ireland (O’G 242). Keening became an important part of the community, acting as a way for the community as a whole to come together and feel the loss in a cathartic way. Entire towns would join in funeral processions when they heard them coming, heralded by the sound of the Keener. Women would often join in the cry, and only later would they stop and ask “‘Arrah! who is it that’s dead? who is it we’re crying for?’” (O’G 243). Keening offered a unique and collective way to feel suffering in a way that simply isn’t normal today. In the words of Marie-Louise Muir, keening offered “words for the living to cope with death” (“Songs for the Dead”). Grief has become something private and often suppressed, but keening gave voice to that grief.
Through examining funerals and the grieving processes practiced throughout history, society can gain insight into humanity and how death shapes us. It is fascinating to see how death evolves, as well as how humans react to it. There is no right or wrong way to handle death. Each individual person functions differently, each need a different catharsis, and each holds different beliefs. But we all honor death. There is no doubt that in hundreds of years people will look back on the practices common today and find them strange, as a new normal will have taken over. But by learning and understanding the grief of the past, humanity can better understand ourselves and our fellow man. Death is an unknown, and people seek comfort where they can - there is a comfort to be found in knowing that all through history that has been true.
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