Celtic Burial and Funeral Rites

Portal Tomb byBy KHoffmanDC via Wikimedia Commons

Portal Tomb (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few weeks ago, a college student from Spain contacted me asking for information on Celtic funeral/burial rites. This student was in luck because I had researched this for a scene that was supposed to be in book 2, but has now been put aside for a future separate book. As with the last student that contacted me, I realized I’ve never done a blog post on this topic, so here we go.

As usual, my research focuses on Britain, but I will include what I’ve found for Ireland and Scotland, too. (Someday, I need to do more research on those two countries.)

Celtic Views of Death and Dying
For a warrior people, it’s not surprising that to the Celts, the most honorable death was to die in battle. Depending on the time period and which tribe you were in, you might be buried, cremated or have your ashes buried. In pre-Christian times, many graves contained items needed for the next world, from chariots and weapons to food, wine, money and clothing. There is some evidence that the Celts practiced human sacrifice, but not likely on a large scale.

The Celts believed in reincarnation. Some sources say they only believed you could come back in human form, but others argue you could be reincarnated as an animal or plant, too. Mythology seems to support this later theory (look at the many incarnations of Taliesin). In mythology, the Cauldron of Rebirth was able to revive the dead. Interestingly, some sources day they believed in after death judgment of your actions, while others say no such retribution existed in the Celtic belief system. Pre-Christian Celts believed in an after-death Otherworld (Annwn in Welsh mythology), a resting place between incarnations.It was a heaven-like paradise. There, the dead wore gowns of silver and gold and gold bands around their waists and necks and jeweled circlets on their brows.

Pre-Roman Britain
According to the poems of Homer and the accounts of Caesar, on the Continent the Celtic dead were burned on a pyre. Sheep and oxen were slain and their fat was placed on the body, their carcasses around it. Jars of honey and oil placed around the body. Beloved horses, dogs and slaves were slain, their bodies piled on top. The whole was lit on fire. The dead were addressed by name and people wailed in mourning. When the fire was extinguished with wine, the “whitened bones” were taken out and laid in a gold urn. The urn was then buried with a mound over it. There is no record of this practice in the myths of Britain or Ireland.

However, we do know that a body was washed and wrapped in a death shirt, called an Eslene. The body was laid out with burning candles or rushes around it in the home for seven days. People would keen over the dead and/or praise him or her. Three days after the body was laid out, a feast/games was held in his/her honor. The body had a bowl placed on the chest into which people would place food and coins for the dead to use in the next life.

On the morning of burial, a Druid came with a rod called a “fey” or “fe.” It was made of Aspen with Ogham letters and symbols carved into it. It was used to measure the body to ensure a proper fit within the final resting place. It was said that if you looked at the fey, your death was unavoidable because it had already measured you. Some sources also say the Druid would whisper to the dead person, giving him/her instructions on how to get to the next world. If the person was murdered or otherwise died without the presence of a Druid, they would still try to speak to the spirit to guide it.

Burial customs varied by tribe. Animal sacrifice and grave goods are both mentioned in British and Irish mythology and supported by archaeological finds, so it’s likely this was at one time part of the ritual.

Roman Britain
I believe it’s a safe assumption that under Roman rule, the Britons adopted Roman burial practices. Roman graveyards were usually located outside of the city. Romans practiced inhumation (burial) rather than cremation. They set up memorial stones (kind of like our headstones) to mark the resting place of the dead, but these weren’t always done of out love; sometimes they served to warn passersby of plague or other ways they could die in a nearby town. (Pleasant thought, isn’t it?)

These memorial markers usually followed a prescribed pattern:  They always began by addressing the god of the shades/death, then talked about the life of the dead person, and ended with the name of the person to commissioned the marker. Some were very elaborate in their stories of the dead, while others were simple memorials.

The Romans are thought to have been a major influence on Christianity coming to Britain. There is some evidence of continuity of burial sites from pagan to Christian. This may have been due to paying respect to ancestors or the areas may simply have been well-known. By the fourth century, many pagan and Christian burials were found side by side in Britain.

Post-Roman Britain
With the fall of the Roman Empire, burial practices took on what we would come to see as a distinctly Christian tone. Cemeteries were allowed inside of cities, and became a communal meeting place, with churches springing up in their midst, as we think of today. Some churchyards had special areas in the northern corner reserved for murder victims and soldiers who died in battle, none of whom would have received last rites.

Graves were oriented west-east. West was the direction of the Otherworld and also Christians believed that this positioning allowed the dead to face Christ when he raised them on Resurrection Day. Single person burials were the norm, with the dead person’s head facing west. Sometimes a mother and child were buried together, but mass graves were not common. Grave goods were not found during this time. Bodies could have been laid in the bare earth, in a stone coffin or a hollowed out log, but coffins were rare.

I can’t find any evidence that details a Celtic Christian funeral rite (if you know of any sources, please tell me!), but from context it appears they were very similar to what takes place in the Roman Catholic religion today, which isn’t too surprising given how little liturgy has changed in its basic components within the Catholic Church.

There was a very early (pre-history) practice of piling stones over the dead person’s body rather than digging a grave. Later in time, the Irish buried their dead in three types of tombs:

  1. Portal tomb: A number of upright stones covered by one or two capstones and sometimes placed in a long or round mound.
  2. Passage tomb: Round mounds with burial chambers in the center which were reached by a passage leading in from the edge of the mound.
  3. Wedge tombs (found in area of Munster): A type of chamber tomb where the chamber narrows at one end.

These could hold either bodies or ashes from cremation. When the body was buried, the arms of the dead person could be loose at the sides or placed over the pubic area. The Irish did not use a burial shroud until around the 700s.

Compared to other areas, there is less evidence of Pictish burial customs. There are four main types of graves:

  1. Cairns – Burial mounds
  2. Cists – Stone lined burial chambers
  3. Barrows – Mounds of earth or stone built up over bodies
  4. Platform graves – A flat, wide circular mound (sometimes surrounded by a ditch).

The Picts buried their dead in a supine position. Scottish graves have been found with scattered small white stones (quartz), believed to ease the passage to the afterlife.

Who Were the Celts? by Kevin Duffy
Pre-Christian Ireland by Peter Harbison
The Everything Guide to Evidence of the Afterlife by Joseph M. Higgins, Chuck Bergman
A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland by Patrick Weston Joyce
The Archaeology of Celtic Britain and Ireland: C.AD 400 – 1200 by Lloyd Laing
Untitled article, S. McSkimming, Dalriada Magazine, 1992
Celtic Burial Rites by Alexander MacBain
The Britons by Christopher A Synder
Celtic Daily Life by Victor Walkley
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Volume 18, p 286-291
Burial Customs Life in the First Millennium A.D.
Roman Death Monuments

Do you have questions about Celtic burial practices? If so, please share them in the comments. What do you know about Celtic burial customs? Have you seen any of the types of graves mentioned above?

7 thoughts on “Celtic Burial and Funeral Rites

  1. I live just next to a Romano-British cemetery (Boscombe Down) , which in turn grew up around a bronze age barrow cluster. Actually the Roman cemetery comprises 7 smaller burial grounds from different periods (very rare indeed). One seemed to be of rich ladies, another of war vets, another contained a massive stone coffin that would have had to be lowered by some kind of crane. It contained a wealthy woman buried with a child in her arms, and the most amazing thing is that even though their bones were quite degraded, their shoes remained intact! Some of the graves also had the Roman custom of cutting off the head after death so that the spirit could not walk.
    A bit further afield there are hundreds of prehistoric round barrows in the clusters around Stonehenge–discs,bells,bowls. These usually cover single burials betweeN 1500-2000BC and some have amazing grave goods of gold, amber, jet, shale, mace heads, bronze axes, daggers. They sometimes cluster around long barrows which are neolithic and were usually for mutiple burials. The long barrows near me had no stone chambers but 20 miles away at West Kennet and East Kennet they had stone passages. A dolmen called Devil’s Den, now just a denuded structure, is also nearby.
    Strictly ‘celtic’ (iron age) burials are often a bit harder to find. The peope of the Arras culture in Yorkshire did go in for the chariot burial described on the continent, and this has been found in Scotland too (one in the middle of an earlier bronze age stone circle.) Quite a few hillforts contain human burials in the ramparts or at entrances, and some of these may have been sacrifices; often they are in strange positions or upside down or tied into a tight bundle. One Iron Age woman buried in a ditch of a much earlier neolithic henge monument in Ireland was found in such a strange contortion, it is assumed she was buried alive!

  2. Hi!
    I was just wondering if you have any knowledge of how close relatives or loved ones reacted after a death of someone close to them? Was there a period of mourning or some sort of day of prayer where the dead were commemorated (like the Christian All Souls’ Day) or were the dead sometimes deified/became house spirits and guardians similar to the practices in Rome? Or was it seen as time to just celebrate rowdily and crow about the dead persons accomplishments?
    I was just curious, and would love to know if you know of anything about that.
    Thanks, you’re awesome!

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