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May 5th 1631

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Dealing with Death

In the days before the Reformation, when someone was on the point of death, the Passing Bell was tolled so that all those hearing it might pray for the welfare of the departing soul. In Reformation times the Passing Bell was abolished but in its place was instituted the Dead Bell which was rung at the request of the relatives of the deceased, proclaiming the death and the time of the funeral.

Except for this change, most of the old customs associated with death remained. If there was a clock in the room it was stopped, a mirror was covered over with a white cloth and no domestic pets were allowed to remain. The corpse was enveloped in a winding sheet and a plate of salt was placed on its breast to prevent swelling of the body. However, this was possibly a relic of an earlier age when bread was placed beside the salt and both were consumed by persons calling themselves Sin-Eaters. They professed to eat the sins of the deceased so that his soul might be allowed to leave the confines of his body.

Similar beliefs underlay the tradition of the Lykewake, with friends and neighbours watching the corpse until burial to prevent it being occupied by demons. The Lykewake tended to become an occasion of revelry with ghost stories told and much drinking taking place. Strangely enough no attempt was made to terminate the custom of Lykewake, but in 1631 the Kirk session was moved to curb some of the excesses.

“The Session being informed of great profanities that customary are used at Lykewakes by certain profane persons that purposely resort thereto for that effect, and that they used to come at midnight to honest men’s houses when they are upon rest, and knock at their yetts, declaring that certain special friends belonging to them have taken a sudden sickness tending to death, putting these persons at whose yetts they report these things under great fear, and causing them in a suddenty to rise out of their beds to the visitation of those reported to be in the said sudden sickness, and find it done in derision of mockery, tending to the offence of God and honest neighbours; for the restraining of such profanity in time coming, the Session have ordered that the Council convene with them the next Session day, to settle an ordinance anent sobriety and godly exercises to be used at Lykewakes, and that profane persons be not admitted thereto in any time thereafter.” 

It is to be hoped that the ordinance mentioned by the Session put an end to this rather cruel form of practical joking. The Lykewake, or the Wake as it became known, survived for hundreds of years thereafter.

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