Welsh Social History (continued)

of this section



Death brought further manifestations of kindliness, and in the interval between death and burial the bereaved family would leave much of the housework to other people. Experienced female neighbours would prepare the corpse (troi heibio) and burial arrangements would be made by the men. Gwylad (vigil) does not cease with death, it was still customary for neighbours to keep a nightly vigil in pairs until the arrival of the coffin. Two or more candles were lighted in the parlour, where the corpse lay, and it was the duty of the gwylwyr (watchers) to see that these candles are kept properly alight. It is possible that the custom of placing the candles near the body has some ritual significance, for they are kept alight night and day, even though other means of lighting may be available in the house. It is possibly a survival from medieval times when Wales was Catholic. The original design of the lighted candles was to give light to the spirit of the deceased on its way to the other world. It was once a custom in some parts to open the windows when a person was dying. A farmer near Ystrad Meurig in N. Cardiganshire said that when his mother was dying, a neighbour's wife who had been the nurse to the lady had tried to open the room window; it would not open so she deliberately broke a pane. Doubtless, she thought that it was to release the soul of the dead person. In like manner it was once the custom for every person on entering the house to fall devoutly on his knees before the corpse and to repeat the Lord's Prayer, and then a pipe and tobacco was offered to the visitor.

In former times, before the Non-conformists became strong in Wales, it was usual for the clergyman to read the common service appointed for the burial of the dead, and to conclude Psalms were sung. Three or four persons offering extempore prayers, and an address delivered by a Church of England clergyman or a Non-Conformist Minister later replaced this, after which hymns were sung. This prayer meeting is called Gwyl Nos (wake-night).

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Another strange old rite was called the 'Sin Eater', though this custom is doubtful. - When a person died, his friends sent for the 'Sin-eater', who, on his arrival placed a plate of salt on the chest of the deceased, and upon the salt was placed a piece of bread. After muttering an incantation over the bread he finally ate the bread, thereby consuming the sins of the deceased. This done, the 'Sin-eater' was paid his fee of 2/6 and then he vanished from the gaze of the onlookers.

Another custom in Wales was to make the sign of the cross on the dead body or a cross was placed at or near his head. Hence the saying, 'Mae ef dan ei grwys' (he is under his cross). As a rule in West Wales coffins were made of oak, but poorer people had to be satisfied with elm.

The corpse was placed in the coffin wrapped in a white shroud, but a good many were buried in their best clothes. In an old book dated 1636 found in the vestry of Tregaron church it was found that it was the rule of the Parish at that time to bury paupers without a coffin, and they were to wear their best apparel, and best hat; the charge for the burial was 2d; if any were buried in a coffin they were also to wear their Sunday best, and the charge for the burial was 2/6. It was also customary in former times to bury in 'woollen' - that is in a shroud of woollen material or flannel - this was done to encourage the woollen industry.

At the funeral feast a drink called 'diod ebilon', which contained the juice of elder flower and rosemary, in addition to beer and ale.

The nearest of kin make a point of sitting in the room with the coffin and before the coffin is closed almost everyone present viewed the body. The nearest male relatives carried the coffin out of the house. It is still the custom in out of the way places when the procession makes its way on foot to the graveyard to bear the corpse alternately four men at a time, sometimes even women carry as well as men. In old times where the roads were bad it was customary to make use of an 'elorfarch' or horse bier; it consisted of two long arms or shafts into which the horses were placed, with transverse pieces of wood in the centre on which the coffin was placed.

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When any of the Llansamlet miners in W. Glamorgan who had gone to work in the Rhondda pits died, their bodies were sometimes carried the forty miles back to their place of burial. When a funeral took place in Aberystwyth in Cardiganshire it was customary for the Town Crier to go through the streets a short time before the procession tolling a small hand bell. This is a survival of a very ancient custom that was once general throughout Wales, and in pre-Reformation times this corpse bell that was known as a 'bangu' was kept in all Welsh churches.

The Gwahoddwr of the wedding feast became the Rhybuddiwr (warner) of a funeral. Dressed in sombre black he would visit the houses in the locality telling them of the date and time of the funeral. Just as the Gwahoddwr asked neighbours to bring to a wedding, so too did the Rhybuddiwr invite the local people to bring food and drink to the funeral, or give the family a sum of money, if they should be in need.

In some areas it was customary to make an offering to the clergyman and to the parish clerk on the day of the funeral. Outside the church, at the porch, or at the graveside a second contribution was made. This was commonly known as arian rhaw because it was collected on a shovel held over the open grave by the clerk himself. The sum collected varied but was often about a quarter of the amount given to the clergyman.

In Daniel Owen's novel 'Rhys Lewis' there is a description of the burial of Thomas and Barbara Bartley's son Seth - In the chapter Rhys is talking about the fact that Seth's funeral was the first he had been to. When Abel Hughes, the chapel elder, comes to visit the Bartleys' the night before the funeral he tries to talk Thomas Bartley out of the practice of drinking beer at the sad event. Thomas was rather angry at this suggestion and says to Abel Hughes ; 'Do you think I'm going to bury my son like burying a dog? No! There will be bread and cheese and beer for all who come here. Even if Seth was not quite like other children, I'm not going to bury him with some tea slops.'

Thomas Bartley kept his word. When Rhys and Wil Bryan went to the house early the next afternoon Rhys said, 'I saw on the table a half-round of cheese and a knife and by its side a loaf of bread, a monster of a jug full of beer, some new pipes and a little platter holding tobacco'. They were received by Thomas himself and his first words to them were, 'William, Rhys, take something for your head'. Rhys thought ' I didn't feel that there was anything wrong with my head ' He thought that Wil Bryan felt the same. Thomas knew that they had not understood and cut them each a slice of cheese and some bread and offered them a small glass of beer. Rhys said he didn't know how Wil could drink the beer without pulling a face, he himself had difficulty in swallowing the beer and soon he knew the effect it had. He felt remarkably at ease with everybody and his hands felt very long, and he had a great desire either to go to sleep or laugh. Thomas Bartley greeted each one that came in with the same words, 'Take something to your head!' Rhys remembered that everybody kept their hats on their heads and each in his turn talked about this and that which had no connection with the death of Seth. Each one helped himself to the beer and placed his glass for the man sitting on his left, turning the handle of the jug in the same manner. The performance went on for a hour and a half or two hours and then some, having drunk as much as they were safely able to take, the appearance of their faces changed. A little while before turning out to go to the cemetery two men came in from the next room. In their hands were pewter vessels like the sort of dishes used by ministers giving Holy Communion. The dishes were decorated with lemon peel; one contained 'warm beer' and the other 'cold beer'; both were highly spiced.

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As soon as these dishes appeared everyone took off his hat; and in the middle of a silence like the grave the two men went around serving the drink in exactly the same way as a minister serving the Lord's Sacrament, and with almost the same earnestness. Then Dafydd the carpenter came round with a plate and each man gave a shilling and Wil Bryan and Rhys each gave sixpence. When the body was placed on the bier everybody put his hat to his ear as if listening to something that was being said to them. The women, gathered in the next room, came to look through the windows as they put their handkerchiefs to their mouths. Dafydd the carpenter went on his knees before the bier and said the Lord's Prayer as quick as the wind as if he were counting scores of sheep.

Then the procession went towards the grave yard. Wil Bryan and Rhys were one on either side of Thomas Bartley. Rhys carried ever greens and Wil sand, to decorate the grave. In the church while Mr Brown, the vicar, was galloping through the burial service Rhys noticed that some of the mourners had fallen deeply asleep. After the service beside the grave Dafydd the Carpenter stood on the mound at the head of the grave and thanked the neighbours for their kindness in coming to the funeral; adding that Thomas and Barbara Bartley wished to render their confidence that the opportunity would come to pay back the kindness in the same way at their departure. After the service, the whole gathering, with the exception of Abel Hughes, Wil Bryan and Rhys Lewis, retired to the 'Crown' according to the invitation. Wil was ready enough to go but he was afraid of trouble at home. While the service was proceeding in the church there was a full house of neighbours drinking tea with Barbara. Rhys said he did not know what went on in the public house but some time later he saw Thomas Bartley being escorted home by two neighbours, and although they were quite quiet they had difficulty in deciding which side of the road they should walk on.

Another form of contribution was found in some parts of Wales until about the 1830's. The 'shot' as it was called was held at the nearest public house - usually near the church. All females, as well as males, were expected to go there and contribute to the 'shot', or more plainly for a supply of drink. Beer was brought on to the tables in jugs, with a supply of glasses, for distribution.

The men would contribute sixpence or a shilling, and the women half that amount. It would not be necessary for any one to stay there to get the full value; he or she could take a drop and go. But anyone who went home without going in and contributing to the 'shot' would be treated with suspicion.

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In olden times it was customary for all who attended a funeral to carry a sprig of rosemary to throw into the grave as the minister was reading the last words of the funeral service; analogous to this was a custom among the non-Christians who threw cypress branches into the grave in the same manner. The belief was that cypress wood did not sprout when thrown into the earth but perished altogether; it was thus an expressive symbol of their opinion that the bodies of the dead would not rise again.

On the other hand the Christians threw rosemary into the graves of their brethren to express the hope of joyful resurrection which their faith inspired.

The custom of covering the coffin with wreaths and flowers is very generally observed. A very common tree to be found in grave yards is the Yew. The Welsh from time immemorial have regarded the yew tree with solemn veneration, probably owing to its association with the dead. The following extract from the laws of Hywel Dda, the Welsh king of the 10th C. shows that the yew was the most valuable of all trees, and also how the consecrated yew of the priests had risen in value over the reputed sacred mistletoe of the Druids-

A consecrated yew, its value is a pound.
A mistletoe branch, three score pence.
An oak, six score pence.
Principal branch of an oak, thirty pence.
A yew tree (not consecrated), fifteen pence
A sweet apple, three score pence.
A sour apple, thirty pence.
A thorn tree, sevenpence half-penny.
Every tree after that, four pence.

The planting of yew trees in churchyards is as old as the churchyards themselves; it could be that their thick foliage acted as a wind break to screen the church and to shelter the congregation assembling before the church was opened. An important object was to furnish wood for bows, as once these were the national means of defence. Another reason for having yew trees in the graveyard was that they are extremely poisonous and in the churchyard they would be out of the way of grazing animals.

How early the practice of enclosure near churches and monasteries for burial of the dead began is quite uncertain. It is evident that one method of burial among the pre-Christians was a matter of building cairns and domens often on high places. Many elaborate structures still exist where massive stones are positioned in a form that leaves a space for a burial chamber.

It is thought that the priestly cult of the early Celtic Druid, worshipped in groves, mounds or within circles constructed from standing stones. Probably the most famous of these is Stone Henge on Salisbury Plain. The sacred places have the prefix 'Llan'(an enclosure) and are part of many place names on the map of Wales that eventually gave the locations for many church buildings.

One of the results of this close knit, neighbourly way of life was that old folk customs survived in a relatively unchanged form. There were many different kinds of customs - some related to the seasons, some being old forms of games and others deriving from ancient patterns of worship.

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