Saturday, 29 March 2008

Sin-Eaters and funerals . . .

This dramatic scene was looking towards the Presceli mountains from the top of Llanllwni mynydd. We had hailstones a few minutes later. (Click to enlarge photo).

My middle daughter and I spent the day at the National Library of Wales yesterday. She needed to do research for essays for Uni, and I wanted to work on my book. It took a bit of organizing once we got there as my library ticket had expired and I had to form-fill and have my photo taken, but now I have another 5 years' worth of card and I think we'll probably go again next week. Mind you, I deserve a medal for endurance, as it's an hour and a half's drive each way and G wanted Radio 1 on throughout . . .

Anyway, I have started reading Mary Webb's 'Precious Bane' recently. In the story, the heroine, Prue, writes of her father's funeral: How the bells were ringing the corpse "home"; how the mourners all have a piece of Rosemary which they then throw into grave as the coffin is lowered in, and how Prue's brother Gideon volunteered to be the Sin Eater as none had been found. I thought that all this was poetic licence - until I was in the Library yesterday. I had time to kill, having finished note-taking from the books I had ordered. The only books available along the side of the North Library were in Welsh or about the history and antiquities of Wales. I took one at random, and found the author had taken a tour of Wales, and I jotted down what he had written about the area near our house. Then as I wandered along, my eye fell on a series of beautifully bound books: "Bye-Gones" was the title on the spine. My hand dowsed, and I picked a volume up and began to browse it. Under folklore, was Rosemary for Funerals. Amazed, I took it back to my seat and took notes. It gave a reference to an earlier compilation and I returned for that. Imagine my amazement when I saw several entries for Sin Eaters! So she hadn't been making it up! In fact, comparing my notes with her words, I think she must have been very familiar with "Bye-Gones". . .

To satisfy your curiosity . . .

A query from 1874:

"A friend of mine recently attended a funeral in the neighbourhood of Fenn's Bank, and noticed that on each piece of cake that was handed to the friends who attended this funeral was a small sprig of rosemary which was placed in the button-hole of the coat, and after the burial service was read, the friends all filed past the grave looking at the coffin and each threw in the sprig of Rosemary." (Rosemary is for Remembrance).

Note from Editor. . . Apparently a common custom in Wales too: "in ancient times . . . to carry a sprig of rosemary in his hand and throw it into the grave as the minister was reading the last words of the funeral service."

November 24 1875:


A custom still surviving in North and South Wales. "A hireling, who lives by such services, has handed over to him a loaf of bread, a maple bowl full of heer or milk and a 6d in consideration that he takes upon him all the sins of the defunct and frees him or her from walking after death."

From "Tours in Wales 1804 - 1813" by Richard Fenton:


At the Parish church of the mansion of Abermarlais . . . "At the Vicar's I saw a most beautiful little Bangu Bell, ornamented with curious raised work, a handle of the same metal and round it in Dutch - *Lof: Got boven al."

* In modern spelling: "Loof God boven al", e.g. "Praise God above all." It was a lich- or corpse-bell, a hand-bell rung before a funeral procession . . .


Leanne said...

its a small world, isnt it jennie! fancy stumbling upon that! I loved all the descriptions in Precious Bane, Mary really brought the old ways alive, didnt she? I think, to revive lost customs, I will take a sprig of rosemary with me to the next funeral I attend. (although I hope that that wont be for many many years yet!I dont want to lose anyonei care about thankyou Gods!!)

Leanne x

Dawn said...

Thanks for stopping by Show and Tell again. I love the treasure you found, and the embroideries - I used to do that kind of work - wish I still could. But the history is amazing.

I love to read your "voice" and can just hear it in my mind. I think I've told you before that my brother's family has been in Manchester for years. We must get back over to visit again. Wales was so beautiful the one day we visited - about 70 degrees (F) and everyone out in summer clothes (or no shirts on many of the men).

What an interesting story about the Sin-Eaters and the rosemary. Almost reminds me of the Native American type of superstition.

Come back again!

MammyT said...

that is really interesting. Those traditions also made it to the New World. Also, the practice of designated 'mourners' who wailed and cried. I think that one came from somewhere over there, too.
Didn't know I knew this til you mentioned these things. Do you have lots of useless info tucked away back there that just comes jiggling to the top when you need it? Amazing.

Bovey Belle said...

Leanne - I was stunned when I opened the book and suddenly found those links - and the Abermarlais Corpse-bell too! I am loving the way Mary Webb writes - you will have to tell me if her other books are as good. I'm surprised she's not been re-printed.

Dawn - Wales is SO beautiful when the sun shines. Sadly, we get more than our fair share of rain! My husband's family came from Manchester too (he grew up there), so I know bits of it quite well.

Nancy - I do have a store of "useless information" which I actually find really interesting! I keep adding to it - you may have noticed . . . I have a vague notion about "paid mourners" too - I suppose it looked better if there were only one or two family members otherwise.

Rowan said...

This was a really interesting piece, I've come across Sin Eaters before - I think in Peter Doherty's medieval crime books - but didn't know about the bread, beer and sixpence that they were paid with. I really must get a copy of Precious Bane! I love reading about old customs and the way people lived.