Welsh Social History
Contents 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
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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
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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