As part of the Good Life Good Death Good Grief death literacy initiative, I attended an evening talk on the tradition of keening. This workshop was organized by my friends and colleagues in Pushing up the Daisies, and was led by singer and storyteller Madge Bray.

Keening (or caoineadh) is a form of ritual lament practised in the Gaelic speaking lands of Ireland and Scotland. It played a key role in wakes and funeral practices. Madge described it in terms of “holding a process of release of suffering”. It certainly was a very powerful expression of grief at both a personal and community level and was predominantly the work of women. Perhaps not surprisingly it did not find favour with the churches and was banned in Scotland as ungodly…. Yet it survived in isolated places and perhaps more importantly, the very sounds and emotional energy seem to have lived on in the music of the bagpipes, in the pibroch of laments.

Madge sang an example of a pibroch chant or canntaireachd that she has given voice to. She chose one written in the aftermath of the Battle of the Park. This took place near Strathpeffer in the late 15th century with much loss of life. Even after all this time and even across the medium of zoom, it was an incredibly powerful moment to hear her sing unaccompanied in this ancient way.

The theme of the evening was “a place for keening today?” and it made me wonder about the relevance of these traditions for celebrants today. I’m very interested in the power of words in a funeral, the power of storytelling. And I wonder if we pay enough attention, not just to the meaning, but to the sound of our words and how we deliver them. And of course music plays such an important part in funerals today. Even an old favourite like “My Way” can acquire a startling power in the right context.

I certainly came away with much to think about. Thank you to Pushing up the Daisies for this inspiring talk.

Michael Hannah, Broughty Ferry, May 2024

Demystifying Death Week – A Place for Keening Today?

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