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  The Customs of Death

Funerary customs and traditions

"I know not for what reason they lock up all the cats of the house and cover all the looking glasses as soon as any of the family dies, nor can they give any satisfactory account for it."
Low's History of Orkney

The first task, after any death, was to "strek oot the body" - in other words, lay it out.

During this procedure, a Bible was used to prop up the corpse's chin and, in some cases, a plate of salt laid on its chest. The body was laid out on "lik-strae" (straw) then "teen aboot" - turned so the feet pointed to the door.

At the same time, any mirrors in the household were covered over, cats were locked away and a cross painted on the inside of the door.

It was considered disrespectful if a body was buried before it had lain in the house for eight days - no matter the condition of the corpse.

During this period - known as the "lik wak" - the task of watching the body fell on a number of individuals. As repellant as it may seem now, to the Orcadians of yesteryear, the task was seen as a great honour.

The "lik wak" was not necessarily a solemn occassion and often involved much drinking and hilarity. The only stipulation was that the watchers must remain with the corpse at all times. Often armed with Bibles or Psalm Books, there were certain duties they had to fulfil. A lamp, for example, had to be lit between sunset and sunrise and its flame not allowed to go out.

Funeral invitations and preparations

From the time of death until the funeral, the bereaved family cleared out a barn, or outbuilding, and spent their time grinding meal and making ale for the impending kistin' and funeral ceremonies. Again, it was considered mean, and disrespectful, if the deceased's family scrimped on these.

Like an Orkney wedding, funeral invitations were made by word-of-mouth and was something that could not be turned down. To do so would not only be disrespectful, but often led to ill-feeling between families.

Meanwhile, as the family worked, neighbours and relatives would visit the household to take one last look at the deceased. Very often these visitors would lay a hand on the corpse and pronounce a blessing.

Kistin the corpse

Eventually, the time came for the body to be placed in its coffin.

Until this happened, superstition dictated that the coffin had to be referred to as the "kist", a dialect word meaning chest.

This immediately explains the significance of another ceremony.

The "kistin" was a feast that marked the corpse being transferred to its coffin. Close family and friends attended this event, where they drank a specially-brewed ale from a cog known as the "kistin-cog".

Copious amounts of drink were common at Orkney's funerary events and, because of this, it was not unknown for funerals to be less than sober affairs. This was undoubtedly another tradition that irritated the church at the time.

Once the body was in the coffin, the casket was placed on two low "creepies" (stools), where it remained it had to be moved for burial in the kirkyard.

The final journey

Transporting the coffin to the final resting place was usually responsibility of a group of men from within the district. At one time it was the duty of a man from each household to take part in the burial of the dead.

On the day of the funeral, these men would to carry the deceased on his final journey to the kirk - a trek that was very often over a considerable distance.

The coffin lid was nailed down on the funeral day and the coffin lifted from the creepies. These were then ceremoniously kicked over in the belief this would ensure they would not be needed again in the near future.

The journey to the kirkyard began with the oldest man in the company at the head of the group. No women, not even a grieving widow, was allowed to take part in this procession, much of which was steeped in superstition.

Throughout the kirkyard trek, for example, great care had to be taken to avoid certain events. A dog crossing the path of the coffin, for example, was a very bad omen and would see bad luck plaguing the deceased's family until the offending hound could be found and killed.

In addition, great care was taken to avoid speaking the name of the deceased.


It was also considered bad luck to set the coffin down anywhere other than specific spots along the route. These stopping-points were known as "wheelie kros" or " wheelie stanes", a name deriving from the Norse word "hvila" meaning to rest.

The origin of these points is unclear but it may be that they were once the sites of roadside shrines, or places of ancient pagan significance.

After the slow journey, interrupted only by the rest stops at the wheelie-stanes, the party would arrive at the kirkyard. Entering the hallowed ground, the coffin bearers would carefully turn the casket sunwise (with the sun) before the Christian burial began.

As the coffin was lowered into its final resting place, the nearest relative would often throw in the first shovelful of earth. This practice was also found in Norway and was undoubtedly another way of keeping the dead within its grave. In Norway, however, the close kin of the deceased carried out the practice quietly, after the minister had carried out the funeral.