Funeral Rites

In a 1962 commentary Heaney referred to Funeral Rites as a dream of forgiveness, the dream of the possibility of forgiveness;

His three panneled sequence pursues angles associated with death and burial moving from family wakes via the uncontrolled violence of the Troubles into myth and legend. Ultimately the sequence yearns for a solution to the unbreakable cycle of murder and revenge and suggests that a Norse hero might hold the key.

In a sense 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.


Heaney reflects on his presence at traditional Irish Catholic family funerals at which status of coffin-bearer conferred on him a kind of manhood as he shouldered the coffin both for its weight and as an emblem of personal responsibility.

He recalls the formal presentation: dead relations  laid out in familiar rooms marred (tainted) by death and the corpse’s particular colours and textures: the pallor of dough-white hands; the glistening eyelids; the discernable changes brought about by death: puffed knuckles/ unwrinkled; nails/ darkened.

The cradle-to-grave influence of the Catholic Church was evident in the way the body was set: hands in rosary beads wrists/ sloped as in prayer; Heaney uses language that hints at his disapproval of the Church’s predominance (shackled obediently).

Wakes resembled one another: regulation dulse-brown shroud (the colour of sea-weed) and quilted satin cribs within the casket. There were practices to respect that Heaney accepted and to which he responded appropriately (knelt courteously) and with ostensible approval (admiring it all).

He can still envision the paradoxical signs of life in the inanimate accessories (wax melted down and veined the candles) and their numinous presence (flames hovering) meaningful to the assembled ladies (women hovering behind me).

Common to them all the reminder of imminent severance (always, in a corner, the coffin lid) its standard fixings (nails) decorated for the circumstances (dressed with little gleaming crosses).

The deceased were beloved pallid semblances of their former selves (dear soapstone masks). A final embrace of cold lifelessness (kissing their igloo brows) was the best that could be done (had to suffice) Dealing with death’s finality amongst those left behind (‘suffice’) will resonate in later poems where death results not from natural causes, but from civil upheaval leading to murder.

Only when the orchestrated ceremonial is complete will the coffin (nails sunk) be transferred to its final journey – the black glacier of the solid, shiny, slow-moving cortège accompanied by people wearing the colour of mourning,.

  • shoulder: carry a burden on the shoulder; suggestion of taking a responsibility;
  • tainted: marred by death;
  • dough: flour coloured preparation used to bake bread for example;
  • shackled: held tightly as with handcuffs;
  • beads: stones threaded to make a rosary of devotions;
  • puffed: swollen;
  • dulse: dark brown/reddish seaweed
  • cribs: reference to the soft fabrics sewn decoratively into the interior of the casket;
  • veined: striped as of protruding blood vessels;
  • dressed: decorated;
  • 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;
  • igloo: ice house
  • glacier: slow moving ice mass;
  • 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 respectful, decent send-offs of I are replaced by headlines reporting the proliferation of violent death generated by the Northern Ireland Troubles. Heaney’s bitterly ironic oxymoron (neighbourly murder) encapsulates the unbridled anger and thirst for revenge within the opposing sectarian communities in which the murders are committed.  Paradoxically repeated murder is scarcely something new.

Death of this violent nature deprives its victims of proper rite (we pine for ceremony, customary rhythms); each family marked by grief (blinded home) is denied the decencies of a sober (temperate footsteps) proper funeral procession (cortège).

Heaney selects ancient burial-chambers which are politically and religiously ‘neutral’ thereby offering the potential for healing, dreaming up a symbolic demonstration of human solidarity proceeding to the great chambers of Boyne known as untroubled resting places for the dead (sepulchre).

He deliberately chooses a megalithic site and its emblematic cup-marked stones as exempt from ‘catholic’ or ‘protestant’. He imagines the mass support of ordinary Ulster folk (out of side streets and bye-roads) turning up quietly (purr) in their family transport (cars nose into line).

His call to arms is the muted sound (muffled drumming) of idling car engines in a huge turn-out (ten thousand engines).

As is the tradition this predominantly male cortège leaves its somnambulant women to manage the home; yet for all their absence the womenfolk share the slow triumph of a procession winding snake-like towards the man-made burial mounds of Boyne… a motorcade so long that its tail has yet to leave the Gap of the North, one of the most strategic highways uniting a divided island, when its head already enters/ the megalithic doorway.

  • neighbourly: what is characteristic of good neighbours;
  • pine: yearn;
  • ceremony: a formal religious occasion;
  • customary: of established practice;
  • temperate: restrained, benign;
  • blinded: deprived of light;
  • restore: repair, rebuild, make safe
  • the Boyne river Valley in County Meath has a number of excavated megalithic burial sites, for example Newgrange; they were regarded as funerary landscapes with great ritual significance;
  • sepulchre: space cut into rock or built of stone in which a dead body would be laid;
  • cup and ring marks or cup marks: a form of prehstoric art  found mainly in Atlantic Europe including Ireland consisting 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; this decoration occurs on the capstones at Newgrange;
  • he selects ancient burial-chambers which are politically and religiously ‘neutral’ thereby offering the potential for healing;
  • purr: the throaty sound made by a cat:
  • nose: move cautiously forward:
  • tune to: watch, listen, adopt the radio frequency of;
  • somnambulant: as if walking in one’s sleep;
  • mound: rounded small hill, potentially man-made;
  • boulevard: wide, spacious avenue;
  • drag one’s tail: move deliberately slowly
  • Gap of the North: corridor in County Armagh traditionally used as a strategic route into Ulster and major centre of power in ancient Ireland; in the Troubles’ era it coincides 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;


Heaney’s dream of Neolithic funeral rites reveals his yearning for change.

Once the burial ground is resealed (stone back in its mouth) the dream is suspended and the motorcade wends its way homewards through a second layer of Irish history – the erstwhile Viking landscape with towns whose names betray links with sea and foreign invaders: fjords (now ‘fords’).

The societal issues that trouble Heaney (his cud of memory continually chewing away) are momentarily calmed (allayed for once) and the dissenting voices he hears taking sides in sectarian and political confrontation and social division are stilled (arbitration of the feud placated).

A dead Norse hero might hold the secret: Heaney’s notion of the Irish ‘sleeping’ dead (under the hill) focuses on an Icelandic saga figure who offers a glimmer of hope and reconciliation: Gunnar, who broke the mould. Every bit as bloodthirsty and ruthless in life he became in death the symbol of a cycle broken: beautiful because he can lie serene (dead by violence and unavenged).

Legend reported (Men said) that whilst in his routine warlike mindset (chanting verses about honour) Gunnar had been enlightened (four lights/ in corners of the chamber) when his burial space had opened to expose his joyful face to a symbol of potential peace (look at the moon).

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)

  • Strang and Carling fjords: use of the Nordic word for ‘ford’ to identify two stretches of water between Dublin and Belfast;
  • cud: process of chewing and re-chewing in ruminants;
  • allay: relieve, alleviate;
  • placate: pacify, appease;
  • disposed: set out, laid to rest:
  • 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;
  • burial mound: man-made superstructure of Neolithic monuments;
  • moon: MP (p130) refers to the moon: that assuaging, eternal, feminine symbol’ suggesting that forgiveness renders an end to the recurrent cycle of violence possible;
  • 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;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;

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