Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


Funerals in the Past

In the days before the Reformation every burial was attended by a priest or monk who recited from his breviary the solemn words which the ritual of the Catholic Church had consecrated to the rendering of dust to dust

“And while the struggling pulses flutter
Bid the grey monk his soul mass mutter
And the deep bell its death tone utter”

All such ceremony was rejected by the Scottish Church as savouring of superstition and in the first book of Discipline it was provided that the dead should be “conveyed to the place of burial with some honest company of the Kirk without either singing or reading, yea, without all kind of ceremony heretofore used”,. Neither minister nor Elder was required to attend and not until the early years of the 19th century was the present practice begun of offering prayer and exhortations on these solemn occasions. In the parish registers nothing is said about any religious service at funerals. Yet it is well known that in formal times a funeral attracted a great gathering of people and that many poor people denied themselves in order to save enough to enable their friends or family to give them a decent funeral. And to bury them “like Christians” as they put it.

Much has been written about the drinking and riotous behaviour which marked these events partly from custom and partly due to superstition which lingered on after the Reformation.

At such an event the company came early to the house of mourning where a substantial lunch was provided. This would have began with grace and ended with a thanksgiving. The funeral possession was then formed the beadle going out in front ringing a bell beside him the “saulies” or hired mourners with their poles and the coffin following carried shoulder high or supported upon hand spikes by the nearest relatives, hearses not being in common use until the 19th century, After the interment the party adjourned to a tavern for the “dergy” a custom considered “evil” by strict Presbyterians which today is represented by the mourners returning to the home of the deceased.

Various records refer to the subject of “wakes” or”Lykewakes” which were prohibited on the 27th April 1648. The Catholic custom was formally very common the object being to guard the dead body from evil spirits and also by mutilation by animals. A poor persons “wake” lasted until the carpenter could prepare the coffin but for a wealthy person the function might have continued for two or three weeks

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