The burial customs of Ireland are very interesting because they throw light on beliefs concerning another life - beliefs that were once universal on the island and are held yet in a certain way by a good many people. There is much variety in the burial customs of the whole country, but I can refer only to one or two details which are observed carefully in the peninsula west of Killarney.
When the coffin is ready to be taken to the grave the lid is nailed down, but when it is at the edge of the grave the nails are drawn and placed one across another on the lid, which is left unfastened.
In arranging the corpse in the coffin the feet are generally fastened together to keep them in position. This is done frequently by pinning the stockings to each other; but however done, the fastening is removed before burial and the feet are left perfectly free. The corpse is not bound in any way or confined in the coffin. That it is held necessary to free the feet of the corpse is shown by what happened once in Cahirciveen. A man died and his widow forgot to remove the pins fastening his stockings to each other. The voice of the dead man came to the woman on the night after the funeral, telling her that his feet were bound, and to free them. Next day she had the grave opened, took the pins from the stockings, and left the feet untrammelled.
It is believed as firmly by some people that the dead rise from their graves time after time, each by himself independently, as it is by others that all men will rise ages hence at one call and be judged for their deeds simultaneously. Besides the separate movements of each dead person we have the great social apparition on the night of All Saints, when the dead come to the houses of their friends and sit by the fire, unseen of all save those who are to die within the coming year. In view of this visit a good fire is made, the room is swept carefully, and prayers are repeated.
When I inquired why the nails were drawn from the coffin and bonds removed from the corpse with such care, some persons said that it was an old superstition, others that it was an old custom, and others still that it was done to give the dead man his freedom.
In the following tale, that relating to John Cokeley, we have a good instance of punishment by fairies. The head and front of John's offending was that he stopped the passage against the fairies. The first result of that act was a slight attack of illness, the second his removal to another world, which, though invisible to all between sunrise and sunset, and visible between sunset and sunrise to few only, is right here on earth. Cokeley's place in the house is held by a fairy substitute with a ravenous appetite, a sour temper, and a sharp tongue, the usual qualities of such an agent.
I know one old man who has an afflicted daughter, and who believes firmly that she has been put in his house by the fairies; he thinks that his own daughter was taken away and this creature given to him. This one has the "tongue of an attorney," while his daughter was a "quiet, honest girl."
The crowning proofs that Cokeley was taken by the fairies are that he was seen repeatedly after sunset, and the sick man refused before his death to see the priest.
There was a farmer in the parish of Firez whose name was John Cokeley. John was a great man for every kind of new information, and would go a long way of an evening to hear people read newspapers, but he didn't give in to stories or to what old people used to say.
Cokeley thought the house he had too small and wanted to put an addition to it. There was an old passage at one end of the house, and it's there he was going to build the addition. John had a gossip who used to go with the fairies, and this man passed the way when he was beginning the work.
"What's that you are doing?" asked the gossip.
"Don't you see what I am doing?" said Cokeley.
"Couldn't you put the addition to the other end of the house and leave this one alone?"
"That wouldn't suit me," answered John.
"You should leave the passage open so that every one could travel through it by day, and especially by night."
"That's foolish talk," said Cokeley.
"Very well," said the gossip, "you think so I suppose, but my word for it, you may be sorry in the end."
Cokeley finished the addition, and left a little hole in the wall near the fireplace, and it was there he kept his pipe and tobacco. One night on going to bed he put an ounce of tobacco in the hole (there was no one smoking in the house but himself). In the morning there was no bit of the tobacco left, but in place of it the price, threepence-ha'penny. He took great notice of that. A few weeks later he rose from his bed in the night and heard a great noise of horsemen outside. He opened the door and looked out, but if he did he saw nothing. He went to bed again, and wasn't long there when he began to be sore and feel very sick in himself. The gossip came to see him next day: "Well, John," said he, "you feel sick to-day."
"I do," said Cokeley.
"You had a right to stop in bed."
"How well you know of that," said Cokeley.
"I do; that much could not be done unknown to me. When you turned back from the door last night there was a crowd between you and the bed as big as at any fair. They gave you only a warning this time, and you'll recover."