Funeral Customs, Enduring Traditions Of Respect For The Dead
Funeral Customs, especially in the Irish tradition, have been well documented since the days these customs were handed down in the oral tradition and kept alive as we honoured our beloved departed throughout the ages. Funerals and Wakes have always been deeply important in the Irish psyche, from back before the famine times – from wrapping sheet to coffin.
Passed from father to son, some of these customs, or variations of them, survive to present day funeral habits.
Omens Of Death & The Spirit World; Also Customs That Protect At Funerals
Stop the clock in a death room or you may be open to bad luck. But a very humane interpretation of this still relevant funeral custom is the notion of a timely funeral wake with no clock restrictions, decent respect given to properly mourn the huge loss of a valued deceased member of the community.
Cover the clock as soon as you stop it, and cover all mirrors in the house so that the spirit of the dead person is not trapped inside.
Opening the window wide immediately after bereavement – something very touching about the notion of open window so that the soul can be on its way.
But any Funeral Director will tell you this habit has a practical side also – in order to preserve the corpse for the Wake and Reposal and the Funeral, it’s important to allow cool air in the room where the deceased person is laid out.
If the door knocks three times, and nobody is there when you answer, that signifies that somebody close to you has just died.
The wearing of black is of course long associated with mourning and grief because the colour black symbolises the dark period of mourning endured by the family in bereavements – widow’s weeds are black.
But also in earlier times, black clothes were worn so that the mourner was seen in ‘shadow’ not substance, and so the spirit of the dead person would not enter their body.
If several deaths occur in the same family, tie a black ribbon to everything left alive that enters the house, even dogs and chickens. This will protect against deaths spreading further. This bereavement habit goes back before the time of Henry V111 in England – in Hilary Mantel’s highly acclaimed novel, a variation of the black ribbon custom featured in Wolf Hall when the sweating sickness caused many deaths in London, often multiple losses within the one family.
Flowers Preceding A Funeral, Gives New Meaning To The Term Funeral Flowers
Roses – if you smell roses when there are no roses around – then somebody close to you may be about to die soon. There are many accounts of rose smells full of pungency and floral aromas very strong all over a house where they were nursing a terminally ill person, but no actual roses present. Gives new insight to the concept of funeral flowers.
A single snowdrop in a garden foretells death – this seems a particularly awful portent – too cruel a reminder of bereavement – when you consider that the first snowdrop of the year is a source of joy and new life and hope for people after the long winter.
Having only red and white flowers in the one vase (especially in a medical setting like a hospital) – this is a symbol of bereavement approaching. But even some green foliage breaking up the red and white can reverse this bad omen.
Birds, Dogs, Banshees, And Their Place In The Funeral Tradition.
If a sparrow lands on a piano, someone in the home will die soon
If you see or hear the hoot of an owl in the daytime, a death will follow.
And on the other hand, the cry of a curlew after dark is said to be an omen of bereavement in the family.
A dog howling at night when there is a sick person in the house is a bad omen. Interesting turn here is that this omen can be reversed if you reach under your bed and turn over a shoe! And shoes make tracks across funeral customs elsewhere – never wear new clothes to a funeral, especially new shoes – and never walk over a grave in new shoes.
This bereavement custom of dogs howling cuts across many cultures from the Philippines to the Romany people and has been linked to the very Irish death symbol of the Banshee howling in the night.
For more on the links between funerals and bird folklore, see our extended article: >> Funeral Customs: Birds, Beehives and Bereavement
On The Day Of A Funeral – Important Marks Of Respect And Custom:
It is considered bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on. If you see a funeral hearse and a cortege approaching, turn around, and walk at least three steps in line with the funeral march.
Or, if there’s no safe space or time to turn around, hold on to a button, or the pin of your collar, until the funeral hearse and the mourning cars pass by.
And in a separate but highly connected custom to the funeral tradition above, here is a children’s rhyme from Canada in the 1950’s – This verse was said if a Funeral Procession passed you by:
Hold your collar
Never catch a flea
None for me
None for you
None for all the family!
How this custom passed from Ireland to Canada and also parts of the U.S is an interesting procession in itself – because it was said to originate from the influx of Irish people into the U.S after the great famine of the 1840’s – landing and settling in places like Gross Isle in Quebec – places not unconnected to bereavement because many people came across the Atlantic in dreadful conditions – the boats were known as ‘coffin ships’ because many people died en route to the new world. And Irish funeral customs such as the one above survived mass emigration.
In Dublin city to this very day, you will see people make the sign of the cross as a mark of respect on seeing a hearse, even if you don’t know the deceased.
Regarding Funeral Processions, one mourning habit that still survives in parts is the custom of drawing all the curtains on the street where a funeral is about to pass.
This is said to prevent the spirit of the dead person from entering the house, but many people have a kinder interpretation – curtains are drawn out of respect for the funeral cortege so that the grieving family don’t feel they are being ‘gawped’ at.
Another death custom born from compassion is the Scottish one of leaving a coin outside the gate of the bereaved family on the morning of the funeral.
Weather Warnings – Death Omens From The Sky
Very large drops of rain warn us that there has just been a death.
If rain falls on a funeral procession, the deceased will go straight to heaven. Right! You get the sense this funeral custom, and possibly the one above, originated in Texas or somewhere warm and dry. If, however, it’s an Irish tradition, then a lot of us are in good shape if you consider our annual rainfall figures.
If it rains over an open grave, someone present at the graveside may die within the year. But don’t forget too the funeral custom above dictates that rain over a funeral procession means the deceased will go straight to heaven!
Umbrellas might keep us dry at a funeral or at a graveside, but they’re not exactly symbols of light – dropping an umbrella on the floor or opening an umbrella in the house means there will be a murder in that house!
Funeral Rights As Opposed To Funeral Rites
But let’s conclude on a positive note – they say Irish people have their priorities right when it comes to paying their respects to their dearly departed – we all know and appreciate how in general, people would almost walk over water so as not to miss a funeral in support of those they care about.
And it seems it was ever thus!
In the old days, merrymaking was a huge part of farewell tributes to the dearly departed – right across the rituals – wake, funeral, burial. In early Christianity, merrymaking was frowned on by the church, but carried on regardless as the right way to pay tribute to the departed. The partying involved snuff, clay pipes, plug tobacco, games, riddles, drink, tears and singing. And that’s an entirely separate article.