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  The Customs of Death

Binding the dead

"Be silent, story, soon.
You did not take long to tell."
George Mackay Brown

Whether foretold, or not, when a death occurred, amid the grief and mourning lurked the fear that the deceased's spirit might return to torment the living.

So steps had to be taken to ensure the dead person's spirit was bound to the burial place.

Binding the dead to their coffin, or grave, was a key element in Scandinavian tradition and unsurprisingly featured heavily in Orcadian folk belief.

Great pains went to ensuring the spirits of the newly dead could not return.

For one, the deceased's name stopped being used. It was feared that mentioning a corpse's name might summon the spirit back into the house. Instead, a number of aliases were used to refer to the deceased. These included terms such as "him dat wis teen" (him that was taken).

Unfortunately, few other traditions were recorded in Orkney. Many, however, were recorded in Scandinavia and it is likely that their use continued here, although perhaps secretly.

The steps taken after a death, although thinly veiled as Christian, sometimes brought the family of the deceased into direct conflict with the church.

One example case involved an 18th century Orphir farmer who was terrified that his late wife would return to torment her stepdaughter.

To prevent this he:

"took corn and put between her fingers and toes, and put some barley corn in her mouth, and laid some in the chest and threw the rest in the chest about her.

This was simply too much for the church.

The Kirk Session could not turn a blind eye, so stepped in and chastised the man for his heathen actions. The power the corn had over the spirit of the dead woman is not recorded.

Another example of binding the dead saw the corpse staked to its coffin by a pole driven through the chest. It is threfore not surprising that some of these rituals were carried out in secret.

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