October 08, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

SOME TIME around 600AD, Pope Gregory I decreed that all Christians should be buried in churchyards, not cemeteries, so that those attending ceremonies would remember the dead on their way to  church. His belief was that the deceased, who in all probability needed the prayers of the living to reach heaven, would not lie forgotten in out of the way places.

It has been a tradition that stood the test of time but over the years I have found myself in conversations with priests who resent the inconvenience and expense of keeping a parish graveyard. They all too readily blame the Government and county councils for letting the Church carry responsibilities, which, in modern times, are seen as being within the remit of the State and local authorities. The modern clergy’s objections are understandable. However, like some teaching brothers, nuns and priests who regret their former powerful role in education, such a position conveniently disregards the Church’s once all-reaching role within society.

In the not too distant past, the Church was more than eager to devote itself to educating boys and girls. Indeed, it could not imagine abandoning such an important role to the State which could not be trusted to teach either religion of morality to the mass of the population. The writings of, for example, Canon PA Sheehan of Doneraile, on the subject of education, provide ample evidence of this. Widely published in German educational publications, he promoted the idea that boys and girls should not be educated above their status in society (it was pointless, he felt).

But I digress. Customs and traditions associated with Christian burial were many and complex. Some churches were built on earlier pre-Christian sites. It was a means of conquering the older religion and making a clear statement about the dominance of what became a new and dynamic religion that transformed society in Ireland over the past 1,700 years.

Christian burial was different to what went before it. In the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, burials were either individually on sacred sites, or as family groupings in places such as Leabbacallee near Glanworth or, more famously, at New Grange, County Meath. Cremations were common in Ireland until the arrival of Christianity, which in turn and until very recent times, completely frowned on the practice.

By contrast, Christians were usually buried communally in churchyards (graveyards) attached to churches. Christians believed that the first burial in a graveyard was claimed by the devil. To get around this, a dog was killed and buried first – the humans came afterwards! Also, burying a dog or animal with a human corpse was seen as a mark of great hatred and contempt.

Some traditions were probably inherited from older beliefs. In many places, a corpse was brought around the graveyard in a deasal (clockwise) direction before arriving at the final place of rest. This custom survives in at least one graveyard I know in East Cork, where remains are brought three times deasal around the burial ground before interment. To approach the grave in the opposite direction would be unforgivable.

It was also believed among Christians that the most recently buried person became the ‘churchyard watcher'. This spirit had to protect the graveyard until the next burial took place, at which point that newly arrived spirit assumed the role of ‘churchyard watcher'. Such a position was to be avoided at all costs because, if, as is so often the case nowadays, old graveyards became disused, the last person would become the ‘churchyard watcher in perpetuity'. Eighteenth and 19th century accounts of funerals indicate that, where two burials were likely to take place in one day, the mourning parties vied with each other to ensure that their loved one was the first rather than the second to be buried that day.

I kind of like that idea that every graveyard has a ghost watching over it. Maybe that's why, one evening many years ago when I visited an old graveyard at Ballyhooly, I felt an inexplicable fear come over me, so much so that I took off out the gate and didn't go back there for years. Normally, I find myself walking around graveyards looking at headstones and taking in the atmosphere of peacefulness that most of them seem to convey. 

A distinguishing feature of Christian burial was that corpses were buried on their backs, hands held in prayer, facing east towards the rising sun. Priests, as Christ’s representatives on earth, were buried facing west. This custom came from the 'Book of Revelations,' which prophesied that at sunrise on the Day of Judgement, the dead would rise to meet the Lord. However, not everybody was buried lying on their backs or on the right side of a church. Murderers, outcasts and suicide victims were often buried face down, and usually on the north side of a graveyard where they remained symbolically and spiritually in the perpetual shadow of the church. The north-side of a graveyard was, it seems, reserved for souls that were believed to now belong to Satan (himself a fallen archangel). This explains why so many have so few headstones in that part of the burial ground - most burials in that part of graveyards tend to be quite recent, because that medieval belief about this being Satan's part of the graveyard is no longer popular.

In Cloyne Diocese alone, there are about 131 medieval parish graveyards. I have visited all of them. Perhaps twenty have churches still in use, over two-thirds have ruins of churches and the remainder have no visible ruins at all. In the Roman Catholic diocese of Cloyne, there are 40 modern parishes, many of which incorporate at least two or more of the medieval parishes. In the Church of Ireland, there are just five unions of parishes, where Fermoy Union, for example, incorporates over twenty of the older parishes.

Almost all of the disused medieval graveyards of Cork, Cloyne and Ross passed to the County Grand Juries when the Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869. These in turn passed to Cork County Council when that body was established in 1899. The County Council, with very limited resources, now acts as official ‘churchyard watchers’ of this wealth of history, archaeology, architecture, folklore and culture.   

In our increasingly secularised society where political correctness reigns more significantly than our understanding of the past, council engineers have mistakenly taken to call these ancient churchyards ‘cemeteries’ – a misnomer which disregards and disrespects the culture and history of these ancient places. That's a pity really. Graveyard is, as Sir John Betjeman said in his poem, 'Churchyards,' 'a much more honest name'.


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