Why Are Bagpipes Played at Funerals?

The ancient Celts were a collection of people whose beginnings originated in central Europe. The Celts were considered rustic and primitive who were far more spiritual, poetic, and freer from imposed doctrines than their neighbors. The Celts were seen as having an inner spirituality that endured and shone even after their religion had been destroyed by the authoritarian rule of Rome. In spite of the fact that throughout the years the Celts migrated across Europe and set roots in Turkey, Ireland, Britain and Spain, this population of people still shared similar beliefs, language and culture. Albeit, Celtic paganism was one of the larger groups of the Iron Age roughly between five-hundred BCE to 500 CE. Incidentally, the Iron Age began at the discovery of a new metal called iron and when the production of iron advanced to the point where iron tools such as weapons replaced the use of bronze.

The Celtic religion was closely tied to the natural world. The Iron Age Celtics worshiped gods and goddesses in places they deemed sacred such as rivers, lakes, bushes and cliffs. The sun, moon and stars were especially important because the Celts found the celestial bodies to be supernatural forces in every aspect of the natural world.

Though their identity evolved during the nineteenth century, the modern day Celts have maintained the tradition of the Iron Age Celts by continuing to share similar language, culture, beliefs and artistic histories no matter their home country. There are currently six nations that tend to be the most associated with the modern day Celtic identity and are considered to be the Celtic nations: Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, Britain, Scotland and Isle of Man.

By text book definition, culture is the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. The modern day Celtics hold many rituals and traditions dear. One such custom is polytheism. In Celtic polytheism, the Celts take calendar days and weeks very seriously. They believe in the spirits of nature. They believe in divine protection. They believe in gods, healing and kinship.

Calendrical beliefs are related to special events in the Celtic calendar. The Celtic calendar is split into two parts, summer and winter, which is a way to reconcile lunations and the solar year. The Celtic calendar heavily influences how the Celtics live their lives.

Spirits of nature is based on the Celtics’ strong belief in transcendent and mythological guides or forces. They believe that spirits reside in trees and that plants have protective powers. Celts make home many sacred spots in nature such as dark tree groves in which to hang ornamental offerings to the gods and goddesses.

Kinship and healing is directly linked to the spirits in nature. The conditions of the trees reflect or mirror the wellbeing of the land. And healing is interconnected to the offering made.

All in all, the Celtics believe that pervading spiritual forces are present in every thing that they do. These forces guide, protect, heal and enlighten. But that’s not all. Traditionally, the spirits are present at birth, special occasions and at death.

Speaking of death, one interesting and well known actuality of the Celtic tradition is the sound of bagpipes playing at funerals. Bagpipes are very important in the Celtic culture as well as in the Scottish and Irish cultures. The bagpipe is a highly preferred instrument to play at funerals because this device sounds mournful and seems to express the deep grievance of the soul, an ineffable mourning that cannot be expressed with words.

Bagpipes also referred to as the set of pipes or the stand of pipes, are a woodwind instrument that uses enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag. Typically, the bag is made of an animal skin. The bag is held by the player between the arm and the side of the chest. The player or piper uses his or her lungs and diaphragm to provide air. This air pressure makes the reeds vibrate in the chanter and drones to produce melody and three harmonies with one single instrument.

The history of playing the bagpipes is quite a morbid one. In the 1840’s Irish immigrants came to the United States of America in remarkable numbers. Due to cruelty and racism, the Irish were treated horribly and unfairly. Needless to say, the Irish immigrants did not receive a warm welcome from the citizens of the United States. The immigrants were not allowed to apply for certain jobs. As a result, the Irish were permitted to apply for the most difficult and the most dangerous jobs. Among these jobs were firefighting and policing. Work related deaths among police officers and firefighters were not uncommon. When one or more deaths occurred in the line of duty, the Irish community held a traditional Irish funeral which incorporated mournful bagpipes. Over the many years, the tradition of bagpipes being played at funerals spread to other cultures and social groups. It is now commonplace for firefighters, police officers, and state and federal workers, who are not of Irish decent, to have traditional Irish bagpipes played at their fallen colleagues’ funeral.

Though in the Irish tradition the Irish bagpipes are used. Nowadays the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes are widely played because these pipes are significantly louder than the traditional Irish uilleann pipes. The louder pipes are more ideal for large outdoor ceremonies. The most played songs at a funeral using bagpipes are: Amazing Grace by John Newton; Going Home by William Arms Fisher; Flowers of the Forest by Fairport Convention; My Lagan Love by Joseph Campbell; Down by the Salley Gardens by Juno Lee; On Raglan Road by The Dubliners; The Mountains of Mourne by Percy French; She Moved Through the Fair by Padriac Colum; Carrickfergus by Celtic Woman; A Fairytale of New York by The Pogues; Danny Boy by Frederic Weatherly; Scotland the Brave by Robert Wilson; Oft the Stilly Night by Sarah Brightman; Skye Boat Song by Roger Whittaker; The Rare Ould Times by Pete St. John.

Considering everything, bagpipes being played at a funeral honors the history of struggle and survival. It is tradition, a culture. It is a symbol of freedom and strength for the Celts.