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Seamus Heaney Funeral Rites Essay

This is an analysis I did for a class on Irish Literature. It analyzes the poem "Funeral Rites" by Seamus Heaney. All works are cited at the bottom of the page. Feel free to leave critiques!

War for Religion

Seamus Heaney’s expressions and biblical contradictions within his poetry represent a distinct rebellion to the actions taken by Ireland during times of war in the mid-twentieth century. When hope and separation from outside powers seemed like nothing more than a lost idea, Ireland turned to fighting in the name of religion, justifying their gains and deaths under the name of God. Within his poem Funeral Rites,there is a silent and tense struggle for validation of those killed in battle, where the fight doesn’t seem to end on the home front, but rather transforms into a personal war for the Irish people.

Being known for his ability to tie religion into his poetry, Heaney used literature as a modern outlet amongst the existing violent rebellion in Ireland. Rather than turning to hostility, Heaney responded with “North, his most gruesome account of the tragic and mythical aspects of the sectarian hostilities” (Hart 5) occurring around him. One of the more popular poems located in the collection, North, Funeral Rites depicts an ironic view of the ceremonies for the soldiers killed in the name of religion. He made his attempts at reaching the public through words, expression, and meaning, in hopes of inspiring nonviolence and motivating civility. Although Seamus Heaney is a Roman Catholic, his poem “Funeral Rites” is portrayed as “antibiblical, fraught with…moral doubts” (85). Within itself, the poem is more of an expression of disappointment with the decisions and morals of Irish people.

As years progressed, Heaney’s poetry surpassed “the simple delight in Nature” (McGurk 1) and began to focus on more important issues, directly affecting his own society, government, and specifically religion. Within Funeral Rites a series of contradictions is present, written so beautifully but intended to disturb and twist one’s emotions. Heaney wrote this as if there was an inward battle with between his mind and the words he was transcribing. The reader experiences feelings of guilt, when the characters described in the poem are portrayed as heroes, trapped in some sort of unjustified death that is over-glorified to prevent the questioning of morals.

The style that Funeral Rites is written in is also vital to how Heaney’s feelings get across to the reader. His expressions are transcribed in free verse, giving the poem not only a story-like portrayal rather than prose, but sending a more chaotic message through to the reader. The stanzas are not cut and dry, and have sentences overlapping into two or three at a time, in no particular rhythm or order. Heaney also split the poem into three parts – three being a recognizably religious number and also important to Irish culture. It ventures from collecting the bodies, to the funeral procession, to the burial and reminiscence, much like war goes from training, to deployment, to either death or nostalgia towards traumatic undertakings.

Each stanza within Funeral Rites has an air of beauty and obedience, following a pattern of mystic expression coupled with almost sarcastic and ironic undertones. The narrator “shouldered a kind of manhood/stepping in to lift the coffins/ of dead relations…” (Heaney 95). Immediately the reader discovers that, within this particular time period, manhood and masculinity are related to giving burial to dead relatives, friends, and townspeople. Rather than importance being focused on employment, marriage, and children, manhood is obtained through burial – fighting for religion, and dying for religion. Heaney starting with this particular stanza instantaneously gives way to his anger towards the relentless and unjust exaltation of sectarian martyrdom in Ireland in the later 1960s.

The “dead relations” described in the poem are not depicted as shells, whose souls have been released from the tensions of the world, lifted up to the greater existence they so deserved. Instead, these individuals are trapped, “shackled in rosary beads” (95), and prisoners of their religion. War is a government-fueled engine, and when the causes for fight become blurred – when hope is at a minimum – these soldiers turned to the name of religion, because it was one of the only things any of them believed in.

Continuing into the viewings and descriptions of the fallen, the fragility of life seems to be tampered with:

…as wax melted down

and veined the candles,

the flames hovering

to the women hovering

behind me. (95)

The people attending the viewings seem to have the life taken from them, as if the waxy candle is more deserving of existence by being “veined.” Heaney specifically mentions the women as those “hovering,” like an angelic depiction with the flames “hovering to the women.” The female figure is saved, in a sense, while the male figured is chastised for fighting in the name of religion. Their punishment is to be chained within their bodies, trapped by Catholicism, “shackled” with guilt. As more and more people enter the battle for religion, their value of life is stripped, and grace is turned onto the women, creating not only a separation between church and government, but also a divide among the sexes.

The woman can be seen as Ireland itself, feminized and left behind in a sense. She is described as un-daunted by the sac-religious political troops. Women portrayed within Funeral Rites are sheltered from exposure to the deaths, and placed within the common domicile. The “Somnambulant women, / left behind, move/ through emptied kitchens…” (Heaney 96). Heaney places the woman in a sheltered familiar environment so the tragic scene happening in the funeral procession doesn’t harm them. Even though the kitchens have been emptied, the female character remains, unguided and repetitious of her duties. The female Ireland is deserted by the dominating politics, expected to march on within the home, holding on to whatever grips of traditionalism are left.

Heaney has been much criticized for his alleged “one-sided approach to the violence in Northern Ireland”(O’Brien 91), and has led many readers to believe him as a glorifier for “the violence” and “aestheticizing” the wars. It has been observed upon and weighted that “politics and poetry, like church and state, should be separated”(91) for the reasoning that amalgamation of the fantastical and logic thought will confuse and distort the ideals of Irish Nationalism. Heaney himself, however, does not consider his works as that of “prose” but more simple “writings” as “a making over into works that are more self-conscious than the usual prose record and yet not justified as verse”(O’Driscoll 180). He is merely expressing his memories, his ideas, and reaching to the public, rather than resorting to blatantly violent outcries and rebellions.

Heaney’s complications with his own Irish identity are expressed through his visions and depictions of religion, and the complications with the traditional values within his own home. He was “born in a part of Ireland that was British, but to a community which saw itself as Irish…” (O’Brien213). This caused a blurring of what is right and wrong when he grew up in a society mandated by British law, amongst a people living by Irish traditions and Catholic beliefs.

The religious imagery in Funeral Rites is ironic and contradictory, beautiful and tragic, stemming from the confusion of politics and religion. When at the viewing of the dead, “…always, in a corner, / the coffin lid, / its nail-heads dressed / with little gleaming crosses...” (95). Coffins, the dead, are commonly at the head of the room, open for viewing, prayer and respect for the fallen. However, in this stanza, the coffin is “in a corner.” This description carries along with it the connotation of being punished or proven of wrongdoing.

The nails on top of each coffin have “little gleaming crosses,” a contradicting view of religion and confinement and finality. The imagery placed on the nails is comparable to the crucifixion of Jesus, dying for the sins of others. The permanent driving of nails into the coffin is the acceptance of consequence and admittance into eternal life. These individuals don’t die in their own name, but in the name Northern Ireland, in hopes to gain widespread liberation through bloodshed. Religion is portrayed as on going and immortal, however in this situation it’s confining and encasing the individuals killed in the war, as if they have done something wrong instead of noble.

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The constant struggle for justification of these deaths echoes more so through stories told than the first person viewpoints of the narrator. When speaking of a man who died,

…dead by violence

and unavenged.

Men said he was chanting

verses about honour

that four lights burned

in corners of the chamber…(97)

Once again there is an allusion towards fallen fighters being recalled as a religious idol, of sorts. The “four lights burned” can be interpreted as the four points of the cross when Jesus was crucified. And the “chamber” as the tomb in which he was laid in. This passage goes on further to say the man “turned with a joyful face / to look at the moon” as the chamber opened. His seeming resurrection refutes the thoughts of improper war in the name of religion, and justifies the death of the man as Christ-like.

There is a contradictory perspective lying within the poem through the narrator, who feels for the deaths as if his relations have been tricked into war. When more people die, it is described as a “neighborly murder” and the loved ones “pine for ceremony, / customary rhythms” (96). These people are hoping and trying to obtain customary ceremonies for the deceased soldiers, however they are not necessarily reaching their goals. The ceremonies are masks and denials of the transgressions in the Northern Ireland religious battles, but required as settlement of sorts for the deaths themselves.

The narrator says he “would restore / the great chambers of Boyne / prepare a sepulchre / under the cupmarked stones” (96). Boyne, also known as a “world heritage sight,” is one of the oldest burial grounds and a vital part of Northern Ireland. It dates back to prehistoric times, and has been the site for many great occurrences, including the deliverance of Christianity to Ireland by Saint Patrick. By restoring the chambers and preparing a sepulchre, the narrator is putting the ideals of his beliefs to rest, because they have been betrayed by the majority of the Irish people aware of the unjust killings, yet willing to bury the soldiers.

Cupmarked stones are associated with ancestor worship, sacrifices, and religious affairs. The tombs being placed underneath these stones signify the dead will forever remain underneath these sacred and often popular landmarks. Their headstones will be a constant reminder of the beliefs left behind in the name of rebellion. It is important for the perspective of responsibility to be placed in the hands of the narrator of the poem, because he is openly expressing his distaste for the actions brought on by politics and religion and inserting it in a widely known, public place.

The other public displays in the poem include the funeral precession being led through the town and towards the cemetery. It is portrayed as anti-religious by incorporating allusions towards war and evil. All of the cars had a “slow triumph / towards the mounds. / Quiet as a serpent / in its grassy boulevard…” (Heaney 96). The alleged “triumph” to the mounds is a journey within itself, seeing as the accomplishment is the voyage of them actually reaching their destiny, which is the burial ground. Like an organized army marching in time, the cars are trudging towards a final resting place. Also, the precession being described as a “serpent” makes the vehicles and hearses are relatable to Satan in the Garden of Eden, tempting Eve towards evil, and her blinding following without knowledge of any wrong.

As the precession moves forward, the cars leave “the Gap of the North” in order to go to the burial mounds. They pass though “the megalithic doorway,” bury their dead, and pass back through to the North. With the necessity to leave the homeland where their pride lays, it seems as if those being buried aren’t deserving of having a funeral on their home grounds.

Those “under the hill / disposed like Gunnar” (97) have their bodies at rest, but their souls remain “unavenged” due to the unjust ways in which they all died. Gunnar stands for someone who is a warrior or fighter, and they were “disposed” of, as if it isn’t noble to be a combatant during that time. Heaney did not want the identity of the Irish people to be marred by violence, to be associated with the negativity brought forth by the British controlling Northern Ireland.

The struggles portrayed in Northern Ireland through the narrative of Seamus Heaney expresses his upset towards war, and his questions of other’s beliefs in the combination of politics and religion. An uprising like the one shown in Funeral Rites brings the ability of one to overlook someone’s actions in the name of a proper burial under the subject of judgments and testing morals. The glorification of a person’s death by hailing them as a hero is wrong when their controversial actions behind the fight are unnoticed.


Hart, Henry. Seamus Heaney, Poet of Contrary Progressions. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1993. Print.

McGurk, John. "Seamus Heaney: The Making of the Poet. - Book Reviews | Contemporary Review | Find Articles at BNET." Find Articles at BNET | News Articles, Magazine Back Issues & Reference Articles on All Topics. Nov. 1993. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. <>.

O'Brien, Eugene. "Seamus Heaney and the Place of Writing (Eugene O'Brien) -" University of Limerick - 2010. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. <>.

O'Driscoll, Dennis. "Stepping Stones: Interviews with ..." Google Books. 1994. Web. 12 Dec. 2010. < rites&f=false>.

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