Burial Customs and Popular Religion from 1500 to 1690

views updated

Burial Customs and Popular Religion from 1500 to 1690

In early modern Ireland, as in Europe, death was a public drama. The dying individual would be visited by friends, relatives, and clergy, and was expected to spend time preparing for death and putting worldly affairs in order. In certain areas bells were rung on death and again at the funeral. The body was washed and placed in a shroud that was knotted or tied at head and feet; special shroud pins might also be used. This work was the preserve of women. Corpses were usually laid out and buried with hands lying on the pelvis or at the sides. Catholics increasingly wished to die or be buried in religious habit—that of the Franciscans was particularly popular—as a means of eliciting the patronage of important saints. Most people would have been buried in the shroud alone, although archaeological evidence suggests that coffin burial became increasingly common. Parishes often hired out biers and coffins, particularly in the late seventeenth century.

The Wake

Prior to interment the corpse was laid out in his or her own home. Family and friends continually watched the body, with a substantial company often gathering at this wake. Drinking of alcohol, dancing, and rowdy games were a feature of wakes until the early twentieth century. The practice of keening over the corpse, both at the wake and the funeral, was frequently commented upon in the early modern period, usually negatively. For onlookers, howling and crying were the main features of the keen, though it sometimes came across as quite musical. Keeners, who were usually female, might also drink the blood of the deceased, clap their hands, and tear at their hair and clothes. The keen was more than a lament: it also served as an expression of protest (against death and other wrongs suffered by women and society), and it might occasionally be used in contexts other than funerals. Wakes and keening faced increasing opposition from the Catholic Church and the civil authorities on both national and local levels from the early seventeenth century onwards, as attempts were made to impose new forms of "civilized" and reverent behavior.

Few mentions of the banshee (ban sí, "fairy woman"), whose keen warned of or announced a death, survive from this period. However, it is clear that among the Gaelic Irish in particular, belief in death omens was widespread.

Written Evidence

Private commemoration of and grief for the dead was expressed in personal documents and poetry. In Gaelic areas the deaths of important individuals often occasioned the creation of praise-poetry by the bards, though this reveals little about funerary practice or real feelings. Indeed, for Gaelic areas in particular, many aspects of the process of death and the treatment of the dead are difficult to retrieve from the patchy sources that survive from this period. Elsewhere, wills and other sources give some indications of the ways in which official proscriptions against donations to the Catholic Church could be sidestepped, and it is clear that significant resources were expended on prayers, pious works, and masses to aid the dead in purgatory. Irish Protestants tended to express strong confidence in meeting their loved ones in heaven, whereas all sides of the religious divide were quick to consign their enemies to hell.


Many burials were accomplished within a day of death, though two to four days was the usual interval between death and burial for the middle and upper classes in the 1630s. For the very wealthy, several weeks or months of preparation might go into the elaborate and costly funerals orchestrated by the heralds, whose office in Ireland was founded in 1552, and this delay might necessitate the embalming of the corpse. Heraldic funerals reached the height of their popularity in the early to mid-seventeenth century, especially among recently established New English settler families, for whom such display served to underline their new titles and entitlements. Their subsequent decline reflected the social disruption of the 1640s and 1650s as well as the rise of the new fashion for nocturnal funerals. Central to heraldic and other funerals was the procession in which the community gathered in hierarchical order. Military funerals might involve the participation of soldiers, while the inclusion of the poor might demonstrate the deceased's charity. (Catholics also perceived large numbers of mourners as an important source of prayer for the dead.) There was considerable communal participation in funerals in all parts of the country. Edifying sermons might occur at both Protestant and Catholic funerals.

Funerals occasionally become the site of conflict, both between and within religious denominations. Several examples of resistance to Protestant interference in Catholic funerals exist, as do accounts of rivalry between the Catholic clergy and religious orders. As church buildings gradually came under Protestant control, Catholic funeral services seem increasingly to have been held in private houses. However, burial in parish cemeteries and Protestant-controlled churches continued after the Reformation. Burial in the graveyards of old monastic sites also remained popular. Changes in the use of some of these buildings, especially in the towns, led to some adjustments in burial practice, though in many areas monasteries were protected by local Catholic landowners.

The long-established custom of burial within church buildings seems generally to have begun to decline in the late seventeenth century as overcrowding became an increasing problem. Previously, church burial was considered to be more prestigious than cemetery burial (it was also more expensive), and parts of the church, such as the east and south sides, were deemed particularly desirable. For Catholics burial near religious images and holy people was also popular. This, along with the practice of chantry-chapel creation and burial, was somewhat disturbed after the Reformation, though many Catholics long retained burial rights in family chapels, and even, through the building of new mortuary chapels, aimed to continue their association with church buildings while isolating themselves from their heretical functions. The arrival of new religious groups, such as the Quakers, led to the foundation of new burial grounds and the introduction of different burial practices (such as the south-north rather than west-east orientation of graves). Meanwhile, those considered outsiders by society—criminals, suicides, heretics, and so on—might be relegated to interment in unconsecrated ground, refused burial, or even exhumed and destroyed. In times of war and plague, bodies were frequently disposed of in mass graves. The visiting of graves seems to have been common, and the graves (and remains) of holy people, such as those perceived as martyrs for Catholicism, might become places of pilgrimage.


Increased control over the running of churches and cemeteries during this period saw the gradual removal there from of the commercial and social activities (such as markets, taverns, and game playing) that they had formerly housed. In the later 1600s, gravestones began to appear and would eventually transform the graveyard landscape. Previously, people had largely been commemorated within churches by monuments that took on much variety in size and shape in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The range of choice available made commemoration accessible to those of quite modest means. The wealthy might employ foreign craftspeople to produce large modern monuments, such as those of the first earl of Cork in Youghal and Dublin. Elsewhere local schools of craftsmen, such as the Kerins and O'Tunneys in the midlands, or individual masons competently provided for the needs of the local Catholic business and landowning classes. In their iconography and inscriptions funerary monuments reflect attitudes to death, desires to commemorate family ties and earthly achievements, the ambitions of the upwardly mobile, and some of the religious concerns of Catholics and Protestants, particularly ideas about the afterlife.

SEE ALSO Calvinist Influences in Early Modern Ireland; Church of Ireland: Elizabethan Era; Family: Marriage Patterns and Family Life from 1500 to 1690; Religion: 1500 to 1690; Religion: Traditional Popular Religion; Primary Documents: Act of Uniformity (1560)


Gillespie, Raymond. "Funerals and Society in Early Seventeenth Century Ireland." Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries in Ireland 115 (1985): 86–91.

Gillespie, Raymond. "Irish Funeral Monuments and Social Change 1500–1700: Perceptions of Death." In Ireland: Art into History, edited by Raymond Gillespie and B. P. Kennedy, 1994.

Fry, Susan. Burial in Medieval Ireland: 900–1500. 1999.

Tait, Clodagh. "Colonising Memory: Manipulations of Burial and Commemoration in the Career of the 'Great' Earl of Cork." Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 101 (2001): 107–134.

Tait, Clodagh. Death, Burial and Commemoration in Ireland, 1550–1650. 2002.

Clodagh Tait

About this article

Burial Customs and Popular Religion from 1500 to 1690

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article