21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 26

A grave tale

Sir: Auberon Waugh in his review of Edna O'Brien's Night (October 7) says he simply does not believe that even in Ireland it is normal to dig a grave at the funeral while mourners stand around waiting for it to be dug. And he concludes that the character who describes this procedure at her mother's funeral is not only a liar, but a purposeless liar.

Auberon Waugh is my favourite reviewer, and his weekly deflations of all sorts of literary and leftwing pretentiousness I find a constant source of delight. So it is In no carping spirit that I venture to correct him on a minor question of fact where his scepticism (usually so apposite) has led him to over-reach himself. Now I don't know about Ireland, and in view of the way they behave generally over there I simply don't care how they bury their dead. But Auberon Waugh's even in Ireland' implies that he doesn't believe the practice exists anywhere at all, whereas I do know that it exists to this day in a somewhat more civilised part of the world — the western isles of Scotland.

In those small remote communities, for some reason I have been unable to discover (perhaps the melancholy Celtic temperament is too allergic to momenti mori) burial grounds are usually set at a distance from human habitations, often high on some hillside approached by a rough track. They are unlovely places, seldom visited, hemmed by a dry-stone dyke to keep out sheep and therefore overgrown with nettles and rank grass — more or less as Edna O'Brien describes them. Moreover the turnover (if the word is not too apt) for a grave-digger would hardly make his a viable business, even part-time. So the mourners must muck in.

I had a highly circumstantial account of one such funeral from a shepherd of my acquaintance. His island community was divided almost equally between Catholics and Protestants. But (a shining example to their distant cousins across the narrow sea) while they could not be said to live in perfect harmony, their frequent discords had no sectarian basis whatsoever. Quarrelshad no reference to religious differences and were as common among those of the same faith as between opponents. Island weddings and funerals were attended by the entire population and presided over by both the Catholic priest and the Presbyterian minister. If anything, the funerals were the jollier of the two types of function.

On this occasion the deceased was an aged man who lived at the far end of the island, and the way to the graveyard was long, steep and arduous. There was no hearse and the mourners took turns shouldering the coffin. Frequent stops were necessary, for rest and refreshment, and in the latter the whole cavalcade took part. When the graveyard was reached there was a general mood of good humour. The younger, sturdier and relatively more sober of the party took off their jackets, rolled up their shirt-sleeves and began to dig. Among the nettles and long grass the boundaries of the plots were unmarked and uncertain. It was not clear exactly why or at what time the confusion arose. It was certainly added to by the discovery that the coffin had been overlooked and left by the roadside during a halt half a mile back. A small party was dispatched to recover it. Meantime the digging went on, the rest of the mourners taking further refreshment.

The diggers donned their jackets and a properly solemn air, the coffin was lowered, the burial rites pronounced by priest and minister, each according to his faith. The grave was filled in, the soil trampled down by muddy boots. Only then was the mistake discovered. The grave had been dug in the wrong place. It was in the family plot of a neighbour with whom the deceased had waged a life-long feud.

There was general consternation. "Our father will never rest at peace beside that woman! " (A theological disputation as to the accuracy of this assumption threatened to develop between priest and minister, but was by tacit consent dropped, or at least postponed to a more suitable time and place.) The consensus of opinion, in spite of the heat of the day and a general feeling of lassitude, was that the grave should be reopened and the corpse transferred to its proper home. But minister and priest, assuming temporal as well as spiritual authority, declared that this would never do. Burial had been completed and might not be undone without an exhumation order from the Home Secretary. The argument waxed and waned, but law and order prevailed, and the gathering departed to enjoy the funeral baked meats.

My friend the shepherd lived in a cottage close by the road to the graveyard. That same evening about midnight, when he was on the point of going to bed, there was a knock at the door. Outside were the two sons of the deceased, bearing spades.

"We've come to dig up our father. Will you be giving us a hand?"

My friend said, no, he could not be a party to a breach of the law.

"We've a bottle of whisky with us."

"Well now, I'll tell you what. Go you and dig up your father and put him in his proper place. Then come back here. I'll have the kettle on and we'll have a pot of tea. You'll be thirsty, no doubt. You'll have your bottle with you?"

And so it was done.

My friend told me, "Man, by the time we had finished I could hardly see them to the door."

D. H. Cameron

Spoutwells House, Scone, Perthshire