The Democracy of Death: Five Distinctives of Island Funerals

I attended a Lewis funeral the other day, my second since moving to the island, but my first at which I went to the graveside. I have been very struck by how different an island funeral is from its mainland equivalent. All these differences have a common theme: the democracy of death on the islands. Here, it is the community that mourns a passing.

See how that is evident in these five particular distinctives:

I. Short Service

The service is shorter than one might expect: just thirty minutes or so. The reason for this is historic: in traditional Scottish Presbyterianism, the funeral was regarded just as an extension of normal family worship. Island funerals were often held in the house of the deceased, and traditionally there was no address at all.

Nowadays, the church is the usual venue, and there is typically a very brief word: some churches tending to give a eulogy, but the more conservative restricting themselves to a plain Gospel exhortation. In either case, strict brevity prevails. In the first funeral I attended, the minister must have spoken for less than three minutes (though with impressive force and coherence), in the second, perhaps five. This shortness is useful. In a close-knit island community, far more people wish to attend funerals than would be normal in a city. Many do so on their lunch breaks or by an informal authorized absence from work, and therefore the minister has to carefully restrict the duration of the service to avoid inconveniencing those needing to hurry back to their desks.

II. Huge Congregation

The size of the gatherings alone is striking: I have been at many Glasgow funerals, but never with more than about 150 people in attendance at maximum, and some very much smaller. But my first Lewis funeral was an immense gathering – I would reckon six or seven hundred people packed into the Cathedral-like Free Church in the centre of Stornoway, and yesterday’s service, in the more modestly proportioned St Columba’s Church, was still probably attended by two to three hundred. This is an impressive sight, and I think must be both comforting and meaningful to the bereaved family, to know that their grief is recognized and shared by their community.

III. Formal Procession

After the conclusion of the worship, the congregation gather outside, the men and the women separating. The men come forward then to form a procession, and head off in the direction of the cemetery, carrying the bier. The men of the family walk in front of the bier, with the chief mourners holding the front and rear cords of the coffin, while the remainder form up behind: first ministers (if there are enough present); then elders; then the remaining men. The bier is passed on from man to man with military precision. Every new pair of men overtakes the bier on the outside, and after a shared nod, step in to take hold of the front (I’m told they work from the back in Harris). The other bearers shuffle backwards. Each time, the rear two drop back, and then discreetly step aside from the procession, stand respectfully until the whole has passed, then rejoin at the back again. If the procession continues long enough, they may get another ‘lift’ of the bier once they have reached the front again. After a few streets, depending on the numbers in attendance, the undertakers bring the procession to a halt, and load the bier into the hearse for transport the rest of the way to the cemetery.

I found this process fairly confusing at the first funeral I went to, though thankfully I was beside another minister who kept me right. But the second time round, understanding what was happening, I found it meaningful: a way for all the men of the community to show their respects, and to participate in bearing the coffin on its final journey.

IV. Male Gathering

The graveside itself is almost always a gathering for men only. The women (astonishingly, in our equality-obsessed society) generally go their own way, usually joining the female family mourners over tea. But the men progress to the cemetery, form the same procession again, this time with family members taking the first ‘lift’, and carry the bier to the opened grave. There, the minister gives an address, again very brief, usually with no prayer (which was traditionally seen in Island Christianity as having the danger of appearing to pray for the dead), and the family members lower the coffin into the grave.

This segregated gathering may appear exclusive, and I do not know what the women of the Island think of the custom, but I found something companionable in the male gathering at the grave. I think there would be comfort in laying a loved one in their last resting place, along with the men of the community.

V. Filled Grave

The last thing surprised me most of all. On the mainland, the mourners depart, and the cemetery staff fill in the grave once they have gone, usually with a digger. But here, once those close to the deceased had thrown in some handfuls of earth, the men took up shovels, and began to fill in the grave themselves. After all the soil had been packed in, the strip of turf was rolled back over, and smoothed down, and all was complete.

I cannot imagine what the dead man’s son must have felt, as he saw the earth closing over his father’s coffin. Even as someone who did not know the man (I was there as a second cousin of his wife), I found it a bleak and deeply solemn sight. Yet there is in this custom a great frankness: confronting the reality of death and burial head on. And again, the community was there to participate, and to show their respects.

Conclusion: The Democracy of Death

The common feature of all these five distinctives is the community involvement – at least that of the men of the community. There is a democracy in the recognition and commemoration of death in the Island context. This is an admirable thing, and I hope it long continues.

Yet, whatever our funeral customs may be, there is a greater democracy in death. Each one of us must face the end eventually: For ‘it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment’ (Heb 9:27). As we witness as a community a body consigned to the earth, there to rest until the Day of Judgment, we may well ask: have we prepared ourselves to face it?

spustlik / Pixabay

Written 05/03/15

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6 comments to The Democracy of Death: Five Distinctives of Island Funerals

  • Susan O. Bachman

    Thank you for the helpful explanations of customs and context. I came to this site to check what I had learned from local Lewis people and from some reading about Lewis funerals. My husband Jim and I (Americans now finishing a two year academic assignment in Cambridge for our church-related university in the US) enjoyed an early fall mid-term break in 2016 on the Isle of Lewis, living in a quiet rental house on the ocean/hiking/driving among you, learning a few local words and pronunciations, going a little beyond mere tourism. Jim is an experienced Lutheran pastor and theology/philosophy professor, a veteran of parish life, campus ministries, who has conducted many funerals, naturally. Without your separation of the genders, confessional Lutherans too in many corners of our vineyard, matter of factly involve close family symbolically filling the grave, usually with flowers or something symbolic. I teach literature and writing; your explanation of the large funeral gatherings but brevity of words nicely witnesses to the concentrated power of short, well-crafted expression, like poetry. We Lutherans invoke the power of poetry and faith in songs and hymns too. At a -great-grandmother’s funeral, one of our young grand-daughters played a simple recorder as a respectful and cross-generational participation and sharing of the rites of faith. Thanks again….In His Service, and many blessings to your parish members and church servants, Susan Bachman

  • I’m glad you, your wife and family were able to enjoy a few days in Glasgow before and after the recent Scottish Reformation Conference in Edinburgh Mr MacLeod.

    Hope your upcoming communion goes well too in Knock Free Church Continuing DV.

  • It was nice to finally hear the sermons from your recent communion in Knock FCC. the only quiry I have is was there 1 table or 2 tables done? The reason I ask is that it mentions “table addresses not clear”. I only heard the table address by Rev D Fraser Rtd. Did Rev R Ross do a table address too?

    • Rev Alasdair Macleod

      Thanks, David, and glad you were able to listen to the messages. There is only one table served in Point, but addressed both before and after the elements were served. These two addresses were both given by Mr Fraser as senior assisting minister. Every blessing.

  • Good Afternoon Mr MacLeod.

    Although I have NOT as yet listened to ALL the sermons, I did listen to Mr Fraser on Sabbath Morning, and as had been mentioned the table address is barely audible.

    I was sorry that the Thanksgiving Service was NOT recorded nor do any of the sermons appear to have any psalm singing on them.

    Hope you enjoy your trip to Edinburgh for the FCC Assembly due to start on Monday 22 May 2017 DV.

    • Calum MacLeod

      Hi David, and thanks for your comments. Yes, we had a very good General Assembly with Our minister, our Elder, William Macleod, and myself from the congregation down in Edinburgh. All business was conducted in a gracious manner with some very edifying, encouraging and challenging addresses from the delegates from other churches.

      The way the table addresses are edited I can understand how it’s perhaps difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins if your not familiar with the custom in our church. If you listen again, you’ll hear Mr Fraser giving the Warrant for the Sacrament, then there’s a little pause as he gives the bread and wine to our minister. It cuts there and starts again at the post-table address. The reason it’s so faint is that the ministers are remote from the recorder’s microphone when serving the Table. I’ve tried to make it as audible as I can without distorting the sound too much. I hope this explanation helps.

      We don’t put the psalm singing on (although we could) as we find that the sermon on it’s own is about 30 – 40 minutes which is what we believe most people are interested in and willing to listen to.

      Blessings,
      Calum

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