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The Coffin Roads: Journeys to the west by Ian Bradley

02 September 2022

David Chillingworth reads thoughts on the Celts and death

COFFIN roads are ancient tracks along which bodies were carried on their way to burial in remote graveyards. Most often, the journey was from east to west. The journey of the body, like that of the soul, was towards the west and the setting sun — Tír na nÓg. Ian Bradley quotes Thomas Ratcliffe Barnett, who looks out over the ocean to the west. It is not a cul de sac of the world, but “before long you will be quite sure that where the world ends heaven only begins.”

Bradley describes several coffin roads with their cairns on which the coffin would rest during its journey. Some were long and arduous journeys for those who shared the carrying of the coffin. One of the best known is the Street of the Dead on Iona. In reality, there were two roads that were associated with the death of St Columba and served those who wished to be buried near to the saint.

Around this practice of carrying the coffin were the customs of keening and the death croon or death blessing. Keening helped the mourners to find their way through the mourning ritual. Even more remarkable is the occurrence of second sight. People would meet ghostly funeral processions coming past them on the road. They would recognise the mourners and would know who the deceased was. In due course, the death that they had seen would take place. It is an extraordinary manifestation of Celtic spirituality.

AlamyThe Street of the Dead on Iona, with the Abbey in the background

Bradley finally takes time to reflect on the impoverishment of our contemporary funeral customs. He suggests that, in the pattern of death in hospital, followed by cremation, our culture has lost its culture of dealing with death. He suggests that there is good reason to “make the transition from life to death more gradual and to mark it with rituals which can help the expression of grief and give it meaning and context”. In short, the extraordinary traditions around the coffin roads can help us to recapture the patterns of dealing with death which we have lost in our times.

The Rt Revd David Chillingworth is a former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.


The Coffin Roads: Journeys to the west
Ian Bradley
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