Funeral Rites

A sequence of 3 poems; Heaney follows three lines associated with death and burial: natural causes; the result of sectarian strife; myth and legend. Ultimately the sequence seeks out a solution to the unbreakable cycle of murder and revenge.


The speaker describes one of a number of traditional Irish Catholic family funerals he has attended. These conferred a kind of manhood upon a young man not yet quite a ‘man’ as he shouldered the coffin both as physical weight and personal responsibility.

He recalls the ceremonial: dead relations/ laid out in familiar rooms suddenly marred (tainted) by death; he picks out colours and textures: the pallor of dough-white hands; the glistening eyelids; the discernable changes that death visited on the corpse: puffed knuckles/ unwrinkled; nails/ darkened.

The baptism-to-grave influence of the Catholic Church was present even after death, the body’s hands in rosary beads with wrists/ sloped as in prayer. Heaney underlines the Church’s continuing power: shackled/ obediently.

Such scenes resembled one another: their regulation dulse-brown shroud (the colour of sea-weed) and quilted satin cribs in the bed of the coffin. There was a protocol that the speaker accepted and responded to appropriately as he knelt courteously and took in the scene admiring it all.

He can still envisage the paradox of life-signs in inanimate objects as wax melted down and veined the candles; he comments on background gender rôles: the flames hovering to the women hovering behind me; he sets out the unchanging routine always, in a corner,/ the coffin lid, its common-or-garden nails decorated for the circumstances: dressed/ with little gleaming crosses.

The deceased were beloved, pallid semblances of their former selves: Dear soapstone masks. The last embraces of those impotent in the face of death, kissing their igloo brows, was the best that could be done: had to suffice. The impotence implicit in the verb ‘suffice’, will resonate in later poems where death is the result, not of the natural order, but of civil upheaval leading to murder.

All its orchestrated stages complete, the nails sunk, the funeral becomes a black glacier, a shiny, slow-moving cortège of vehicles and people wearing the colour of mourning and part of the inexorable final journey of the coffin.

  • dough: flour coloured preparation used to bake bread for example;

  • putty: an off-white oil based compound used to secure exterior glass in it frame:

  • crib: the sense of a “child’s bed with barred sides” evokes the strutted interior structure of the coffin;

  • soapstone : a soft, metamorphic, talc-base stone; easily carved (used already in Viking times) chosen perhaps for the textural qualities and pale bluish-grey colouring it conveys;

  • 8 quatrains; line length variable between 3 and 8 syllable; 6 sentence structure of free verse (1 repeated word);

  • multiple use of enjambment;

  • rich recipe of assonant flavours of varying strengths: [ai] Rites/ I/ kind later admiring/ behind/ suffice; frequent [ɪ] in to lift the coffins; eyelids glistening; unwrinkled/ wrists; quilted satin cribs; coffin lid/ little/ kissing/ igloo [e]stepping/ dead relations later knelt/ melted; nail-heads dressed; [ei] laid/ tainted/ nails; veined/flames/ always/ nails; [i:] been/ beads later gleaming/ each;[əʊ] dough/ rosary/ obediently/ sloped later soapstone;

  • after line 8 a dominant sonic chain [ʌ] puffed knuckles; unwrinkled/ dulse later suffice/ sunk/ pushed alongside two pairs of [æ]:satin/ wax/ black glacier;

  • alliterative effects: in (1) nasal [n] and sibilant [s]; in (2) sibilant [s]; in (3) velar plosive [k] and nasal [n]; in (4) sibilant [s] alveolar plosive [d]; in (5) [d] and repeated words [v]; in (6) [k] and alveolar plosives [t] [d]; in (7)sibilant [s]; in (8) bilabial plosive [b] and (s) variants;

  • the vocabulary betrays an antipathy to death and the feeling of impotence felt by the observer; the trappings and protocols of the organised Catholic church are portrayed;


The peaceful, decent send-offs of the first piece have been superseded by cases of violent death recurrent in the period of civil strife preceding the publication of North in 1975.

The sectarian nature of the violence and the unchristian nature of the communities in which murder is committed are encapsulated within a bitterly ironic oxymoron: news/ of each neighbourly murder. A paradox is also evident: repeated murder is scarcely something new.

The traditional funeral is suddenly missed. Death of this violent nature is seen to lack its proper rites: we pine for ceremony, customary rhythms; each blinded home, united in grief, is effectively denied the decencies prescribed by the previous poem and would benefit from the sober temperate footsteps of a (funeral) cortège.

Heaney dreams up a monumental, symbolic demonstration of human solidarity proceeding to the great chambers of Boyne within which there would be a sepulchre.

He deliberately chooses megalithic times (revealed by the archaeological evidence of the site’s cup-marked stones): Newgrange amounts to a non-denominational burial site, pre-dating both ‘catholic’ or ‘protestant’. He imagines the mass support of ordinary Ulster folk Out of side streets and bye-roads gathering in large numbers and in family groups: cars nose into line.

The procession’s sounds of harmony and human ‘congruence’ will be subdued (unlike the brash volume of marching-drums described in Orange Drums), reduced to the purring … muffled drumming of idling car engines.

Should the predominantly male cortège, as is the tradition in Ulster, leave its somnambulant women at home, the letter will nonetheless share the slow triumph of a procession winding snake-like towards the burial mounds, a motorcade so long that its tail will not have left the Gap of the North (one of the most strategic highways to power in Irish history) before its head already enters/ the megalithic doorway..

  • The Boyne river Valley in County Meath has a number of excavated megalithic burial sites, the principal one at Newgrange. Legend suggests that the palace of the Celtic god of love Aengus was to be found here.

  • Cup and ring marks or cup marks are a form of prehistoric art found mainly in Atlantic Europe including Ireland. They consist of a concave depression, no more than a few centimetres across, pecked into a rock surface and often surrounded by concentric circles also etched into the stone. The decoration occurs on the capstones at Newgrange.;

  • A corridor in County Armagh is traditionally referred to as ‘The Gap of the North’; it was both a strategic route into Ulster and major centre of power in ancient Ireland; it coincides with an area particularly associated with paramilitary activity;

  • 7 quatrains; lines between 4 -7 syllables; no rhyme scheme;

  • 5 sentence structure; punctuation mainly end-of-line; almost half of the lines enjambed lending themselves to the adagio pace of processing;

  • assonant effects, some recurrent others sectional: [ɪ] in/ rhythms later imagining/ in its/ megalithic; [ai] pine/ winding/ blinded/ I later side/ bye/ line/ behind/ triumph/ quiet; strong presence of [e] ceremony/ temperate footsteps later prepare/ sepulchre;/ten/ engines/ left behind/ emptied recurrent serpent/ procession/ head already enters/ megalithic [ɔː] cortège/ restore [ʌ] customary/ footsteps/ sepulchre/ cup/ country/ muffled-drumming [ei] great chambers [əʊ] home/ stones/ roads/ nose later slow; [au] Out/ thousand/ mounds [uː] move through/ towards/ boulevard;

  • alliterative effects: in (1) nasals, bilabial [m] and alveolar [n]; in (2) alveolar plosives [t] [d]; in (3) a cluster of bilabial plosive [p]; in (5) clusters of sibilant [s] and alveolar [t]; in (6) bilabial nasal [m] and sibilant [s];

  • vocabulary of quiet calm: purring/ cars; somnambulant; snakes make little if any sound;


From symbolic ‘burial’ to resurrection: Heaney emerges from the chamber at Newgrange (once literally blocked by the stone that stands at its entrance).

Once they have put the stone/ back in its mouth resealing the burial grounds, his dream is suspended and he wends his way home through another layer of Irish history, an erstwhile Viking landscape, past coastal towns whose names betray the link: fjords (now ‘fords’).

The poet’s cud of memory, continually chewing away, has for once been calmed and his personal anxiety as he weighs matters of history and language, harmony and social division in his mind, is soothed: arbitration of the feud placated.

As he pictures those ‘sleeping’ under the hill, he identifies a character from Icelandic saga who offers a glimmer of hope to Ulster’s future via forgiveness and reconciliation: Gunnar, a hero Icelandic saga, breaks the mould. Whilst every bit as bloodthirsty and ruthless in life as any character in those legendary cycles of blood-letting and revenge, he becomes in death the symbol of cycle-broken: beautiful Gunnar has gained serenity for being dead by violence and unavenged.

Legend reported (Men said) that whilst chanting verses about honour Gunnar had undergone some inner change, whereby some kind of enlightenment (affirmed by the presence of four lights/ in corners of the chamber) had brought him the privilege of resurrection so that he emerged from his tomb to stare at a symbol of potential peace: with a joyful face to look at the moon.

  • Heaney ‘s vision is prophetic: history will demonstrate almost twenty years later that the road to peace and reconciliation will by definition require that some acts remain unavenged and that irreconcilable factions talk together;

  • 5 quatrains; variable line length, the shortest three syllable the longest eight; no rhyme scheme; impressive 2 sentence structure combining punctuation and enjambment that make for compelling oral delivery of a prophetic message;

  • a 2 sentence structure in 5 quatrains; blank verse; line length varies between 4 and 8 syllables; 14 lines enjambed;

  • assonant effects: [əʊ] stone later disposed/ opened [au] mouth later mound/ about [ɔː] north/ fjords later four/ corners [ei] allayed/ arbitration/ placated/ lay later chamber/ face; [uː] feud/ beautiful; [ʌ] put/ cud/ under/ Gunnar/ unavanged; [e] memory/ burial/ dead/ unavenged/ said/ then; [ɜː] verses/ burned/ turned;

  • consonant effects include a cluster of sibilants bilabial [b] and alveolar plosive [d] in (2/3);

  • voiced labio-dental fricative [v] picks outs the fundamental problem: violence/ unavenged;

  • the unusual and hitherto unused [ɔɪ] announces the most positive word in the sequence: joyful;

  • MP (p130) refers to the moon: that assuaging, eternal, feminine symbol’ suggesting that forgiveness renders an end to the recurrent cycle of violence possible;

  • Gunnar is the ‘brave and guileless’ youth borrowed from the Icelandic Njal’s Saga; he is depicted here, in death, as ‘unavenged’, but was, in fact, as violent and ruthless as any other character in Iceland’s bloodthirsty legends where revenge was the only means of sustaining honour;

  • In a 1962 commentary on poem selection Heaney referred to a dream of forgiveness, the dream of the possibility of forgiveness;

  • Heaney explores psychologies rooted in barbarity, particularly the ethic of revenge;

  • He selects ancient burial-chambers which are politically and religiously ‘neutral’ thereby offering the potential for healing;

  • he imagines a strategy for breaking a terrible, inevitable cycle, overcoming militarism rather than celebrating it;

  • He pursues the Sleeping Giant motif; a dead Norse saga hero might hold the secret;

  • To NC(p65) Heaney appears to distance himself from judgment: murder is unjustified irrespective of the name in which it is committed;

  • To MP (p130) Heaney mingles the symbolic and the naturalistic;

  • III is a further reminder of how the poet retained a love of Christian myths and respect for Christ’s values (MP p 130);

  • Alternatively the poet’s earnest prayer is that those in the North who have died in the Troubles may achieve in death the serenity of Gunnar (MP p130)