Imagine if you will, a place where death is the center of life. Where a town’s cemetery serves as it’s social center – the children’s playground, a place to meet friends to chat or play games, where weddings and religious services are held. Such a place could be found in the Brittany region of France. Here, it is said that, “There are more dead in every house than sands on the shore.”
“The graveyard is as truly the centre of the commune as the dolmen was of the prehistoric tribe. The dead who lie there are by no means cut off from the world; the voices of the living reach them in muffled tones; they know that they are not forgotten; they are associated with every event of importance in the family. Nowhere else, and at no period, have people lived in such familiarity with Death. The consciousness of the presence of the dead never leaves the people. The evening of a wedding is like a funeral wake. The betrothed meet at the graves of their dead, and seal their vows over the tombs” (Baring-Gould, 1901)
Those Britons driven from their lands in the fifth century were scattered throughout Britain and parts of France. A number of them settled in an area of France, which they named Brittany, after their homeland. They not only brought with them many of their Celtic and Pagan beliefs and practices but held tenaciously onto them through the centuries. It is believed most of these long held traditions were derived particularly from the Celts of Gaul, who according to Caesar, traced their ancestry to the god of death.
For the Bretons, it isn’t simply a matter of being comfortable with the subject of death but for many, a very literal familiarity with Death himself, for it could be your own Uncle or neighbor. Here, the role of the Grim Reaper is passed on to either the last person interred in the local cemetery, or for some, that the last person to die who is a member of each town’s parish at the close of a calendar year takes on the role of L’Ankou.
L’Ankou resembles the most popular and modern representations of the figure of Death; a skeleton, often robed and brandishing a scythe. L’Ankou is Death itself, and it is he or she who beacons the souls of those who are about to die and carries them off in a wagon.
“The Ankou who is a king of the dead, and his subjects, like a fairy king and fairies, have their own particular paths or roads over which they travel in great sacred processions; and exactly as fairies, the hosts of the dead are in possession of the earth on November Eve, and the living are expected to prepare a feast and entertainment for them of curded-milk, hot pancakes, and cider, served on the family table covered with a fresh white table-cloth, and to supply music. The Breton dead come to enjoy this hospitality of their friends; and as they take their places at the table the stools are heard to move, and sometimes the plates; and the musicians who help to entertain them think that at times they feel the cold breath of the invisible visitors.” Evans-Wentz, 1911
Even grave sites are constructed to receive food offerings. Small cup like holes can be found in some tombstones which serve as a receptacle for milk or libations, offered on November Eve during an elaborate, night long set of rituals that include feeding, praying and singing for the dead.
It should come as no surprise then, that the Bretons have incorporated numerous rituals into their funerals, many of them involving food.
If the deceased person had cancer or if it was the cause of death, a dish of butter is to be placed near the body so that the butter will absorb the cancer. The infected butter is then removed from the home and buried in the ground. This superstition is believed to protect the other family members and visitors from “catching” cancer themselves.
One custom dictates that the departed must eat, or be buried with, as much dirt as the amount of bread they have wasted during the course of their lifetime. Not very good news for those of you who enjoy your sandwiches sans the crust.
Liquids, such as liquor or milk is permissible in the home of the deceased, but water is not. It is feared that the newly departed, who is unaccustomed to and probably a bit clumsy in their new form and could trip and fall into the water and drown. As they are already dead, I’m not sure how helpful that practice is, but it’s the thought that counts, right?
Unfortunately, since the 1940’s many of these fantastical customs have been slowly dying away. In the mid 1980’s anthropologist Ellen Badone conducted field research in the region focusing on Breton’s changing responses to death. Badone discovered that Breton’s prior reverence and familiarity with their dead and the dying process is now being replaced with the more Western “denial of death.”
Lewis Spence F.R.A.I., Legends and Romances of Brittany (2010)
Baring-Gould, S. , A Book of Britanny (1901)
Mansfield, Milburg Francisco, Rambles In Brittany (1905)
Ruth Edna Kelley, The Book of Hallowe’en (1919)
John Thomas Koch, Antone Minard, The Celts: History, Life, and Culture (2012)
Ellen Badone, Death Omens in a Breton Memorate (1987), Changing Breton Responses to Death, Journal of Death and Dying, Issue: Volume 18, Number 1 (1987-88)