The History of Leith

February 7, 2005

Funerals in Leith

In the days before the Reformation every burial was attended by a priest or monk, who recited from his breviary the solemn words which the ritual of the Catholic Church had consecrated to the rendering of dust to dust.
“And while the struggling pulses flutter
Bid the grey monk his soul mass mutter And the deep bell its death tone utter”
All such ceremony was rejected by the Scottish Church as savouring of superstition, and in the First Book of Discipline it was provided that the dead should be “conveyed to the place of burial with some honest company of the Kirk without either singing or reading, yea without all kind of ceremony heretofore used.” Neither Minister nor elder was required to attend, and not until the early years of the 19th century was the present practice begun of offering a prayer and exhortation on these solemn occasions. In the parish Registers nothing is said about any religious service at funerals. Yet it is well known that in former times a funeral attracted a great gathering of people; and that many in the lowest ranks were in the habit of denying themselves the necessaries of life in order to save such a sum of money as might enable their friends to give them a grand funeral and bury them like Christians, as they termed it. Much has been written about the drinking and riotous behavior which marked these events, partly due to custom and partly to the gloomy superstitions which lingered amongst the people and drove them to indulge in excesses.
At such art event the company came early to the house of mourning where a substantial lunch was provided. This entertainment was preceded by a grace and concluded with a thanksgiving, each of these exercises occupying the time of a modern sermon. The funeral procession was then formed, the beadle going in front ringing a bell, beside him the saulies or hired mourners with their poles, and the coffin following carried either shoulder-high or sup ported upon hand spikes by the nearest relatives, hearses not being in common use until the 19th century. Alter the interment the party adjourned to a tavern for the “dergy’ an evil custom which in more decorous times is represented by the return of mourners and friends to the house of the deceased.
There are frequent references to bells in our Records. There is, for example, a Minute on 19th May 1646 which states that the bellman is to have “all ye comoditie he can reap for ringing ye steiple bell to ye burials” which indicates that for this mark of respect a fee had to be paid to the bellman. Again, on 31st March 1681, reference is made to the ringing of the hand bell at burials, for which also a payment was expected. On 21st July 1681, when three new bells had been hung in the steeple, the Session ordained that the bellman should have 12/- Scots for ringing any of the bells to a burial, in addition to which a sum of 2/6 had to be paid for the use of the poor. This custom is believed to have originated in the belief that the sound of bells scared away evil spirits, but it came down from pre-Reformation times and still lingers in the tolling of the passing bell at the funeral of some great personage. In times when there were no cheap newspapers the bell man was an important official, and his proclamations attracted crowds at every street corner. In this manner deaths and funerals and other events of interest were intimated to the public. The office was abolished in Leith about 40 years ago; the last bellman was Willie Flucker, whose announcements the children used to greet with a chorus of amends.
Various Minutes refer to the subject of “wakes “or “lykewakes” which were prohibited on 27th April 1648. This Catholic custom was formerly common amongst all classes, the object being to guard the dead body from evil spirits and also from mutilation by animals. A poor person’s “wake” lasted until the carpenter could prepare the coffin; but for a wealthy person the function might continue for two or three weeks.
Source-South Leith Records 1925

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