Sunday, 10 February 2013

Prone burials in popular culture (again)

I've written before on prone burial - burying someone face down to prevent their return after death - and its occurrence in popular literature.

The most recent documented historical occurrence of this happened in 1916, although I noted before that it is the sort of event that might be too sensitive to be shared with fieldworkers. I was reminded of the practice then by its appearance in a late nineteenth-century story by Ambrose Bierce.

Listening the other day to a Jake Thackray compilation I came across a much more recent popular reference to the motif. The song 'The Jolly Captain' features a long-suffering old salt who is plagued by his cantankerous wife. (This is fairly typical of Thackray's representations of marital relations). First off the wife threatens to haunt the Captain if he remarries:

'From her deathbed she said "If you marry when I die
I'll crawl from my coffin to haunt you vexatiously".'

I'd come across such threats before, although not always attached to this rather misogynistic domination. Yeats noted it as having been 'a common threat' (1) in Irish folklore, and it turns up in the repertoire of that fine Irish Traveller singer Tom McCarthy. In the song 'Don't Be Beguiling' it is the abused lover who threatens to haunt the woman who has tormented him while alive. (Sadly this song isn't on Tom's first CD Round Top Wagon, but that only points to the need for him to record more!).

Even more striking than this motif in Thackray's song is the last stanza, where the Captain promises she'll 'stay in her place':

'No she won't come to haunt me and taunt me, I know,
'Cause I buried her face downward, she's a long way to go.'

Jake Thackray

Thackray was born in 1938, and this song was first released in 1972. Thackray's use of the motif doesn't presuppose widespread familiarity with it, although it doesn't treat it as unusual and unexpected. (This is similar to Bierce's sly presentation of it: the narrator does not see the implications of the burial, but the reader feels an unpleasant lurch of recognition). This suggests that prone burial may still have been known or mentioned somewhere in Thackray's own background, which points to a continuation of the idea more recently than the evidence of the practice might indicate.

* * * * * * * * *

1: W.B. Yeats, ed., Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland (London: Pan, 1979), p. 117.

No comments:

Post a Comment