Fairy Funerals

Allan Cunningham in his LIVES OF EMINENT BRITISH PAINTERS records that William Blake claimed to have seen a fairy funeral. ‘Did you ever see a fairy’s funeral, madam? said Blake to a lady who happened to sit next to him. ‘Never, Sir!’ said the lady. ‘I have,’ said Blake, ‘but not before last night.’ And he went on to tell how, in his garden, he had seen ‘a procession of creatures of the size and colour of green and grey grashoppers, bearing a body laid out on a rose-leaf, which they buried with songs, and then disappeared’.

Most people would deny the possibility of a fairy funeral, believing the fairies to have lives co-terminous with this earthly world, or else that they dwindle and disappear in the course of ages, like the Small People of Cornwall. Yet, here and there, people claim, like Blake, to have seen fairy funerals. One of these is preserved in the archives of the School of Scottish Studies among the fairy experiences of Walter Johnstone, one of the travelling people of Perthshire. He found a ruined house near Tom na Toul with a well near it. He was just going to dip his can into the well when he saw a light coming out of the bushes. Two wee men came out, about six inches tall, carrying a coffin between them. They were wearing bowler hats, not the ‘lum hats’ usually worn at Scottish funerals. Dr. T. F. G. Paterson of Armagh Museum collected a similar account from one of the old

A man once followed a fairy funeral. He was up late at night an’ heard the convoy comin’. He slipped out an’ followed them an’ they disappeared into Lisletrim Fort (a triple-ringed fort near Cullyhanna). He heard the noise of them walking plain, but saw none of them.

Kirk in his incomparable work puts a period to fairy lives and also mentions funerals:

There Men travell much abroad, either presaging or aping the dismall and tragicall Actions of some amongst us; and have also many disastorous Doings of their own, as Convocations, Fighting, Gashes, Wounds, and Burialls, both in the Earth and Air. They live much longer than wee; yet die at last, or at least vanish from that State.

A little later he says: ‘They are not subject to sore Sicknesses, but dwindle and decay at a certain Period, all about ane Age.’

Some people are not certain that their funerals are not part of this ‘presaging or aping the dismall and tragicall Actions’ of men; at least it is so in Bowker’s ‘Fairy Funeral’, in his GOBLIN TALES OF LANCASHIRE. Two men were once walking home towards Langton village on a clear moonlight night. One was the old cow-doctor, Adam, and the other was a lively young fellow called Robin. As they came up to the church the first stroke of twelve sounded and they passed it as the chimes pealed out. A moment later they stopped, for the peal of the passing-bell began to ring. They counted the strokes, and after twenty-six they stopped – Robin was twenty-six years old. They wondered who it could be among his companions, but decided that they would know in the morning, and hurried on towards home. But as they reached the drive and lodge of the ancient abbey, the gate swung open and a little dark figure came out with a red cap on his head. He was waving his arms and singing a sweet but mournful dirge, and he was followed by a procession dressed like him which bore in the midst of it a tiny coffin with the lid pushed back so that the face was visible. The two men drew back into the hedge, but as the coffin passed old Adam leant forward, and in the moonlight saw the face of the corpse. ‘Robin, mi lad,’ he said, ‘it’s the picter o’thee as they hev i’ the coffin!’ Robin started forward, and saw it was indeed the miniature of his own face. The bell still tolled and the funeral cort├ęge passed on towards the church. Robin took it for a death warning and determined to know the appointed time. Adam tried to restrain him, but he hurried after the Feeorin, and, touching the leader, he asked, trembling, ‘Winnot yo’ tell mi heaw lung I’ve to live?’ At once,
with a flash of lightning and a spatter of rain, the whole procession vanished, and the two men made their way homeward as best they could through wind and rain.

From that time Robin was a changed man. There was no more riot and merriment for him. His only comfort was to sit with old Adam at night and talk over what they had seen and heard. In a month’s time he fell from a stack and was fatally injured. This is the fullest account of a warning funeral, but there are reports of them in Galloway and Wales. The Welsh corpse-candles are among the Will O’ The Wisp phenomena discussed by Aubrey and Sikes, but these are ascribed to the spirits of the dead rather than to the fairies.