A coffin road is simply the route that funeral processions took when travelling from the place where the deceased lived to where they were due to be buried. The reason the processions originated in the dwelling house is that the dead were displayed in their homes for the wake, or in Scots, ‘Lykewake’, which was a period where mourners could visit and pay their respects to the dead. The Lykewake often degenerated into drunken revelry.
The procession along the coffin road is a rite of passage for both the dead and the mourners. It is a transitional rite where the mourners act to safely transport the spirit from the space of the living to the space of the dead and the mourners employ many ritual elements to ensure that the spirit is not lost or tempted to return to the domestic home and that the mourners are not tainted or contaminated by the dead that they are carrying. The transition phase is often referred to as a liminal period from the Latin limen, meaning a threshold, and liminal periods or places are often depicted in popular culture such as in the Twilight Zone, the island in the television series, Lost and in the film The Terminal where the main character is stuck between countries and resident of neither. The phenomenon of liminality is integral to the use of coffin roads as both the mourners and the deceased are between states.
Before a rite of transition can begin there is a rite of separation and funeral processions contain their own rites to signal that the body is now leaving the domestic sphere to start a journey to end, hopefully, in the spiritual sphere. Often coffins would be kept on tables or chairs during the lykewake and when the body was due to be lifted these tables and chairs would be knocked over or upturned to be left in this position until the mourners returned from the burial. This has most commonly been interpreted as a method of confusing the spirit to stop it from finding its way home and reoccupying the family home. While this may have become the reason, the most likely origin is to stop whatever contamination the chairs had contracted through touching the deceased from spreading.
A similar explanation can be given for the common ritual of taking the coffin out of a back door, a smokehole or even a specially made hole in the wall. Again, there was a desire to avoid taking the corpse across the doorway, which was the threshold to the house and, symbolically, a very important place – often people were married standing in the threshold and it was the boundary where visitors could be welcomed or barred. People who made a hole in their house were going to considerable effort for the serious purpose of avoiding the doorway, which was probably more for their benefit than that of the spirit.
Once the body was safely out of the domestic home it was now on a coffin road, on a transitional journey where it was betwixt and between the familiar states of domesticity and religiosity. This phase was a ritual in itself and there would be further opportunity to enact rites for the twin purposes of directing the spirit and cleansing the living of the taint of the dead. It has long been argued that there is such a thing as a liminal state becoming permanent, which happens when the rite of transition is not completed correctly and the initiand is not passed on to the new social order then there is a danger of that person never leaving the state of liminality. This is significant to coffin roads where rites were enacted to transport spirits from the domestic life to the spiritual state and if this rite was not completed correctly then that spirit could be lost in limbo and forced to exist as a ghost or a wraith.
The funeral procession would have left the house with between 2 and 6 people carrying the bier, which was a platform on which the coffin rested. There was no one system for the whole of the country and so, depending on where in Scotland you lived, 2 people might carry the bier at waist height at the head and feet, 4 people might take a corner each or 3 people might line up on either side and take it on their shoulders. There was a need to change coffin bearers regularly so that the bearers could rest and also as carrying the coffin was considered a way of paying respects to the dead and people would look to take a turn. In some parts of Scotland, carrying the coffin was mandatory and so if the route was very short, changes would be made in very quick succession. Changes of the carriers could be signalled by a shout from the lead mourner or a ringing of a bell or sometimes it would just be done on an ad hoc basis with carriers receiving a tap on the shoulder when someone wished to take over.
Occasionally there would be specific sites where the entire procession would stop for a time to rest, have something to eat and most importantly have something to drink – it was common for funeral parties to descend into drunkenness, leading one English observer to remark ‘Gosh, these Scots funerals are more drunken than our weddings’. Many of these customary rest stops were marked by cairns, often called resting cairns, where mourners would add a stone to mark the passing of the dead. Sometimes routes were contained large flat-topped stones that were used for resting the coffin on. Sadly, memories of these sites quickly died out and as the sites were marked by humble objects with an increasingly obscure purpose the majority of them have been lost through field clearing, an attempt to remove human evidence from the landscape or have simply been forgotten about and are waiting to be rediscovered.
In the east coast the flat-topped stones were commonly known as ‘leckerstane’, ‘liggarsteen’ or ‘liquorstane’ or any number of similarly spelled names. The common belief of the origin of this name is that this was where people stopped to drink copious amounts of liquor although there are some instances of ‘lecture stones’ in Cleish parish in Fife, which perhaps points towards them being a place where sermons were given before burial. However, it is far more likely that the root is the Old English ‘lych’, which means a corpse and in Scots this became ‘lyke’, which is evident in the lykewake and in Shetland it became ‘leek’. Very often the only remnant of these places is in the place names of farmhouses or in historic maps. Once again it is unclear whether these flat-topped stones were purely a useful place for the coffin to sit, if they were there to avoid having to let the coffin touch the fertile ground and potentially contaminate it or if they were even just seats where mourners could sit while lunching with the coffin at their feet.
In many parts of Scotland women were not allowed on the coffin procession or in the western Highlands and Islands they were allowed part of the way in order to sing a lament. The reason that women were barred from attending funerals is likely because women were a symbol of fertility and the dead were a potential threat to that rather than, at least originally, a patriarchal motive. The lament that women sang was called the ‘coronach’ and has variously been described as ‘beautiful, haunting’, a ‘hideous howl’ and ‘a sort of ho boo boo boo boo’. Sometimes women would accompany the singing by beating their breasts and crying. Often strangers who the funeral passed would join in the singing but later it became more professional and women would be paid to sing the lament. The singing of the Coronach largely died out in the 19th century.
In many parts of Scotland there was a belief that the spirit of the deceased would have to stand guard at the entrance to the graveyard until another person was buried and replaced them. When there were two funerals in a day it would lead to unseemly haste as both parties rushed to ensure the person they were carrying would spend as little time as possible standing guard. In the parish of Pettie, just east of Inverness, this belief had a sinister element where it was thought that the spirit guarding the entrance would ‘grab’ the last person in the procession who entered the graveyard. This led to very quick funerals as people were keen always to stay close to the front of the procession and regularly deteriorated to arguments and fights. There was a saying where, if someone was looking to go faster, someone would remark, ‘let’s put on the Pettie Step’.
The coffin road would end after entering the churchyard when the participants were no longer in between states and had very firmly entered the familiar religious sphere. In order to signal the end of the transition rite there would be rites of incorporation where the corpse would be incorporated with other bodies, the spirit with other spirits and the attendees would separate themselves from the dead and incorporate themselves with the living and back into the domestic sphere. The most obvious example of this is the burial itself and the liturgy but there could be other elements like carrying the coffin round the grave a number of times in a certain direction. These rituals were designed to ensure the spirit was led away to the appropriate place while the living safely extricated themselves from anything to do with the spirits and the dead.
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