During the Summer Solstice and other liminal times of the year, it’s common for those who teeter between worlds to cross over. As my grandmother has just made this transition, I thought it appropriate to talk about the animist tradition of keening and lamenting.
What are Keening and Lamentations?
Some say keening and lamenting are the same thing. They both mean to sing mournfully after someone has died. The term “keening” tends to refer to the wails that are heard between death and the burial. The keen is also the term used to describe the text of the mourning songs or lamentations.
Professionals or friends and family keen for the dead. Some traditions keen with elaborate call and response rituals. Some call out questions to the dead or sing his praises. In other traditions, what happens is more spontaneous and can include simple vocalizations without any words. Sometimes this is because the words were lost.
In Ireland there is a legend of a faerie woman, called a banshee, who keens to warn people that someone is going to die. So keening foreshadows death.
“Lamenting” tends to refer to songs and sounds of grief that are sung after the burial has taken place. Both have ancient origins. The tradition was found in Greece, Rome, the British Isles, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It is still done in tribal cultures and may still be found among the rural poor of Ireland, Italy, and Greece.
Very few recordings of these practices exist because they are considered sacred. It would be unseemly to record a ritual during a funeral. It’s also a very vulnerable time and singers don’t want their vulnerability put on display. There is also stigma against it as it’s seen as a backward, pagan practice. So it’s shameful to be caught doing it. However, here is an example of what it’s like.
Why Do We Keen and Lament?
In most (or maybe all) cultures, keening is the province of women. Perhaps because women bring life into the world, it’s more fitting that they ferry the dead across the dangerous divide between death and the Other World. Or maybe it’s a woman’s job because where masculine energy is logical, feminine energy is emotional. Perhaps women can just connect to grief and emotions more easily.
Whatever the reason, liminal spaces are dangerous. They are unknown. The keen helps keep the evil spirits away from the dead and helps them to find their way to the Other World so they don’t wander or get lost.
When there are funeral processions, the keen is also a cry to villagers to join the funeral. As more people add their energy to the cries, it gives more energy and support for the deceased person to find his way home. It’s bad luck to cross a funeral procession without joining it for at least a little while. Those in the liminal space have no energy of their own. They don’t have bodies to walk where they want to go. They can’t eat or breathe to create energy. The transformation from physical to spiritual isn’t yet complete, so they need help to get across the divine. That energy comes from keening.
We keen for the ancestors and descendants. When someone dies restless, they may not make it to the Other World. This not only diminishes their personal power, it weakens the family line as this person cannot serve as an ancestor. Their unresolved issues continue to live within the ancestral line until someone heals it. So, keening is a way to complete the life. If the deceased didn’t live well, perhaps those he left behind can help him die well.
The mournful wailing also helps the living. It helps us get in touch with the grief within our own hearts and gives us the social and cultural context to express it. This is especially useful in cultures where women are/were repressed and unable to honestly show their feelings. When you hear the cries of the keeners, every ounce of unexpressed sadness and grief wells up until it explodes. You just can’t resist. It’s cathartic.
Each culture has a different time for how long it takes to complete the journey from death to the Other World. Some say forty days. Some a year or even two. Grieving family and friends continue to sing lamentations during this interim period. Once the transition is complete, in some traditions, the lamentation must stop. Grieving too long can keep loved ones here out of concern. In other traditions, lamenting can continue without end.
Keening and Lamenting in Modern Times
Keening didn’t die with the advent of Christianity. It just underwent a transformation. One of the greatest examples of a mass (ritual) for the dead is Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor. Can you listen to this and not feel the grief within?
Purcell’s aria, “Dido’s Lament” is another example. I can’t get through “Remember me…” without at least a heart squeeze if not outright sobbing. Every. Single. Time.
The Irish folksong “Danny Boy” is another lament that brings on the water works. Everyone knows this song. When the first first few bars ring out, I’m done. The music connects with everything mournful within me and spills out. Just what we need when someone dies.
Modern funeral practices are changing. More people are understanding the need for grieving and having emotional funerals. Paid mourners who help us get in touch with our grief are once again a thing. Keening is enjoying a revival. Women in moon circles are keening for losses other than death- loss of innocence, a childhood they didn’t have, a lover, a child, a dream. And this is a good thing. It’s time to end the practice of grieving in solitary silence… or worse yet, not at all.
If you have unresolved grief and would like to release it in community, please come to Pan Society’s Fall Retreat. We will keen and help you let go. It’s not too late to sing your loved ones home.