SCOTTISH BURIAL CUSTOMS
Below are some of the Scottish burial customs with origins in old age superstitions that existed in many cultures of the world. These superstitions were more predominant the further north one went into the Highlands. Superstitions surrounded making sure the soul departed and could not find its way back home.
Departure of the Soul
At the moment of death the windows were thrown open for the purpose of easing the departure of the soul. The window remained open only for an instant for fear the soul might return.
Mirrors in the house were either covered or had their faces turned to the wall and all clocks in the house were stopped. This is said to be done to prevent puzzling or misleading the ghost in its efforts to leave the house.
Death was a community event. The bell-ringer would stand at the town square, ring his bell, then announce the death of the deceased. This announcement served as an invitation for the entire community to attend a feast and funeral at the home of the deceased. In some cases the door of the home was painted black and decorated with white tear shapes.
Cleansing and Kistan
The women would prepare the deceased for burial - washing the body - which symbolized the purification of the soul. The body was then dressed in 'dead clothes' more commonly known as winding sheets..
Once completing the washing of the body the women would 'kistan' the body - that is lay the body in the coffin.
For several days the body was "Waked" - Members of the family, numbering 2 to 10 people, usually the young and unmarried, would watch over the body around-the-clock., to keep the spirit from falling to the Devil. Curtains or blinds were drawn until after the funeral.
Family and friends of the deceased would come and pay their last respects. Readings were made from the Bible, along with the singing of hymns, and conversing in low hushed tones. Neighbors would help by bringing extra chairs for the watchers or extra peat to help heat the house throughout the "Dead Days."
On the day of the funeral, a seven course feast of food and drink commenced. The deceased family was responsible for providing a feast. If they could not afford the feast, an auction was held afterward, selling off the deceased assets in order to pay for the feast and funeral. The men and women would separate, the men go to the barn and feast, while the women would feast in the house. After feasting a ceremony would be held to commerate the deceased individual. Each person would have the opportunity to toast the deceased and his or her family and friends.
Paying last Respects
Adults and children alike filed past the coffin, touching the deceased's brow or breast, lest they be haunted by the corpse's spirit later. After all had paid their respects, the coffin was closed and eight women relatives would take the "First Lift." When the coffin was lifted up, the chairs on which it rested were carefully turned upside down for fear the ghost might be sitting on them. The coffin was carried through the house to the men waiting outside. The casket leaves the house, 'feet first' so that the soul cannot find its way back home.
The funeral procession commenced at 3:00 p.m. Processions were traditionally on foot, a custom that persisted into the 20th century. The coffin was carried by eight men at a time, with all of the men of the community having the chance to help carry it. The procession was usually solemn but it could also be wild. Due to excessive drinking at the feast by the men, unexpected events occurred. Sometimes the procession would lose the coffin or even get in fights with other funeral processions which were headed toward the same churchyard.
Rest stops were at places where 'cairns' were built for resting the coffin. At each of these stops, for resting, switching pall bearers, or sharing whisky, the men would throw a stone at the side of the road as a tokin. Even today one sees these heaps of stones by the roadside.
Only men attended and completed the burial at the cemetery. Close relatives lowered the coffin in to the ground.
Women followed the casket only to the entrance of the cemetery church gate or would stay behind at the house to look after the children and prepare the food for the after-funeral feast called a "Dredgy."
20th Century Funeral Customs
Over the years funeral homes took over the process of preparing the body for burial. Occasionally a funeral would be held at home. Instead of a bell-ringer announcing the death of the deceased at town square, the eldest son of the deceased would send out invitations to family, relatives, and close friends to attend a funeral ceremony either at the house or local church.
Respects were paid to the deceased at a ceremony held at the church. At the end of the ceremony as the coffin is carried from the church the church bells ring, known as the 'tolling of the bells.' The casket was transported to the cemetery on a horse-drawn funeral carriage. The horses would have black decorative plumes on their heads. Women attended the actual burial at the gravesite, and adhered to the custom of wearing black.
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