Cremation Practices in Ireland
In honor of Saint Patrick’s Day this past week, we at Martin Oaks would like to share some interesting tidbits and theories about cremation practices at one of Ireland’s most famous archaeological sites, Newgrange.
Although the past, especially before written history, is difficult to solidly define, surviving monuments and artifacts in Ireland provide us insight to cremation and burial practices during their Neolithic (New Stone) Age, about 3000 – 2500 BC.
Newgrange (Irish: Sí an Bhrú) has been popularized in the modern imagination through 19th-century literature. This passage tomb (a phrase describing a tomb in which the main passage breaks off into smaller rooms) is constructed with two passages in the shape of a cross, with three rooms at the ends. The room to the right, per tradition, is the most ornate. Each of these rooms contains traces of cremated remains in stone basins, as well as beads and other small belongings.
Some theorize that Newgrange is the final resting place of these and other remains, perhaps after washing in the sacred Boyne river to the south. Others say that Newgrange itself may have been a New Stone Age crematory. Another viewpoint is that Newgrange may have been a primarily religious site, due to the astronomical significance of its positioning, and that remains were placed there temporarily for up to years at a time either as a way to enhance the spirit of the location, or as a middle step in the burial process to allow the soul time to self-actualize outside its former body. The entrance and some “roof box” openings allow direct sunlight to enter and light the passage only at sunrise on days near the Winter Solstice, and this may have been an important part of interment rituals.
Another interesting perspective about death in Irish Folk Tradition can be found in the concept of the Banshee (Irish: Bean Sí). Again, modern popular imagination varies wildly from the more authentic concept. While we usually imagine the Banshee as a supernatural being taking the form of hysterical, ugly, shrieking woman who lures the souls of the dying from their bodies and causes fear to those who hear her, the Folk Trad origin is much more positive.
The Banshee is not ugly, merely elderly, almost always depicted with long, disheveled hair. She is the supernatural equivalent of the Irish keening woman (Irish: bean chaointe), whose profession is to wail, cry and sometimes sing during funeral processions and to announce a death to the rest of the community. Where the average family used keening women, more prominent families were instead honored by the presence of a Banshee, who was usually heard more often than seen.
The traditional view of Banshees offers insight on the Irish culture’s perspective of death and grief. Rather than being silent and private, grief is deeply felt by the community as a whole, expressed vividly and without shame. Death, while of course causing grief, is not something to fear but a natural part of the human experience that is honored even by supernatural visitors.
For information on modern cremation and final disposition in the Dallas area, please contact us here at Martin Oaks.