God, the Keening Woman: Wailing the Lost

Communal expressions of grief have been shaped over time by religion, gender and power in ways that leave us with few ways to express mourning in public. In response to the #NamingTheLost, a vigil in which over 24 hours people impacted by the pandemic read names of those lost to COVID-19, a minister who has walked her own journey with grief reflects on grief customs her own ancestors lost and the work of mourning as resistance when lives are treated as disposable.

Yesterday at my church’s virtual Zoom service, our preacher Priscilla held up her Sunday copy of the New York Times to the screen.

The headline, floating above specks of ink covering the front page – each a name and sentence of someone lost to coronavirus, is one I know my future children may see in history books: “U.S. Deaths Near 100,000 an Incalculable Loss.

It was Memorial Day weekend, a time when we remember the dead. This year the memorials on our lips are also a necessary work of visibilization: It is easier, emotionally, to focus on everything else about coronavirus except for those who have died. In response, last week, dozens of organizations across the country co-hosted a 24-hr vigil called #NamingtheLost, in which people who lost someone to COVID-19 or who are from heavily-impacted communities read individual names aloud – non-stop, overnight. The organization I work for, Faith Matters Network, participated. At the 8:00 hour, I had my dinner plate on my lap as I watched and listened to my colleagues read each name allotted to them with careful reverence and thick breath.
Names clutched at their throats, like a 5 year old’s name our logistics consultant Ristina read as tears came down her face. Our executive director Jen’s eyes softened and her voice wobbled when she read 10 “Stevens” in a row. Thousands of people tuned in on Facebook live to bear witness.

Ed Shaw, 76, Bronx, NY.

Edith Izari, 65, New York, NY.

Ernest Boyd, 61, Queens, NY.

Frank Bocabella, 39, Clifton, NJ

France Bacal, 31, Brooklyn, NY

When my eyes and heart glazed over, impossible to wrap my head around so many names, I wrapped a prayer shawl around me: the one made by ladies from my mother-in-law’s church. They say they weave prayers into the shawls, sending up intentions for healing with each stitch.

This is a cruel marathon, a relay race where each step is like moving through thick sand and it doesn’t get easier. And yet it is one we must do. Naming has power. Mourning is work.

Actions like #NamingtheLost woke me up from my individual pandemic world and the abstract anonymity of numbers and daily briefings. At the start of the vigil, Jamie-Jin Lewis Zooming in from Brooklyn explained that reading the names is essential when there is “so much debate and grandstanding about COVID-19, with almost no mention of the actual people who are impacted…A conversation about death and sickness, absent the sick and the dead.” Saying their names is resistance to an antiseptic imagination that prefers the pain of the old, the sick, and the poor, and of the ones who loved them, to be buried under dutiful nods to their sacrifice. A Memorial Day tradition, indeed.

And so, instead of give in, with each name read we entered into that same bottomless particularity of the people who have died in the pandemic. Even when the readers did not know those whom they were honoring, they held back tears as they read names. Behind a name you can sense what and how we remember people: how they greeted you on the phone. What it felt like to make them laugh. Their handwriting, their smell, their annoying habits. What you forgave them for; what you won’t. Specificity is what makes loss so excruciating.

I know this because last June, one of my parents, whom I knew as my father in my childhood but who later came out as a trans woman, died very suddenly and unexpectedly last June. A few months later, my partner’s mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The prayer shawl the church ladies made has seen a lot of use in a short amount of time.

Like COVID-19 patients, my own parent died with little notice, by losing her breath, in her case to a sudden blood clot to her lung. Neither I nor she nor anyone else had a chance to say goodbye. But now the experience of her death feels almost lucky. She died peacefully in her sleep, and in the weeks after, I gathered in person with family, her funeral packing the church. Never did I know that a year later, such things would be impossible for others grieving their loved ones.

As the year anniversary of losing her approaches, I have found a way to regularly open the box of my own grief, which has felt important to put a pin in amidst so much larger collective loss. On Saturday mornings, I sit on my sun porch with an adult coloring book. Playing music that reminds me of my parent, I look at pictures of her or listen to the last voicemail she left, and I wait.

Adding more pinks and greens and purples to the marine animals scene I’ve been working on for weeks now, tears eventually come like a faithful companion. Some trumpet note in Chet Baker’s “Autumn Leaves,” or a photo or memory breaks me open, and a flood, light rain, or hurricane of emotion arrives to do its work. I let it run its course, till no more tears are left, until the shaking stops, and I box up the colored pencils, turn off the music, and go about my day.

This weekly time, completely my own, transports me from whatever is at the forefront of my brain and into my grief brain – which is, justly, compartmentalized as I go about the rest of my life. Sometimes what comes is not tears but more of a moan – a cry like the sound of the earth in me. Off the grid of written music or words, it comes straight from the depths of my whole body. Afterwards, it’s like I’ve had a workout. Exhausting and necessary, with each moan, something moves.

It’s this mysterious effect of my weekly ritual that drove me to search one night with late night urgency to try to remember something I didn’t know that I – and my people – had lost. Having recently learned about customs of mourning among Tzʼutujil people in Guatemala, which involves spending all night wailing, screaming, crying, or singing one’s grief while others stand by to keep the griever safe, I turned to my phone:

“Siri, tell me about keening.”

Keening is a death wail. Like death wails, from across the world, including China and aboriginal Australia, keening was a way that people indigineous to Ireland and Scotland – my ancestors – voiced grief in visceral, public, and communal ways. So too in Jeremiah 9, “wailing women” show up as essential workers whose laments help others remember who and what was lost.[i]

There are no recordings of keening happening live in real time, just memories. The author and musician Phyllida Anam-Áire remembers hearing it as a child in Donegal, Ireland, according to an interview by Maeve Gavin. It was “a chaotic sounding…it went with the breath.”[ii] You didn’t know how long one keener would go on, but it would be passed on to the next woman with the sound of a loud outbreath like wind. Originally done in more ancient times by a bard, keening became associated with women. It is often described as “unearthly,” performed by women who had gone through many griefs in their lives and were not afraid of the sound of sorrow. The keening song, or Caoineadh is also called an “ullaloo” (like the word “ullulate”). Try singing “ullaloo” on any note, and you’ll notice it feels a bit like that uncontrollable waver right when you’re about to cry.

What haunts me in the time of so much incredible loss COVID-19 and the widespread anonymity of that loss, is that it was believed that keening was not just cathartic for the grievers, but also a responsibility on behalf of the dead. Gavin writes, “many believed the act of keening enabled the deceased soul to leave the body, and that keening was required, thus giving the role huge importance.” Anam-Áire was told by her elders that the final breath sound by each keening woman was like the soul of the dead leaving, the keening itself helping to give permission for the soul to move on from this world.

This is a window into beliefs about death that may be strange for many Christians. But there is immense wisdom in keening and in other similar vocal expressions of grief. Mariín Prechtel, formerly a shaman in the village of Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala, claims that “Grief expressed out loud, whether in or out of character, unchoreographed and honest, for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them.”[iii]

In the Tzʼutujil understanding of death explained by Prechtel, the souls of the dead become helpful ancestors only when they are thoroughly grieved as such: loudly and completely, personally and communally. The extraordinary pain of loss, is at its purest an expression of love, praise for life itself and the divine. In this view, it’s the screaming, moaning, weeping, of grief – like with the keening song – that helps create the spiritual force that helps the dead in their journey to the otherworld of the ancestors. If they are not properly grieved, the one lost could become a ghost, looming destructively in the family’s, and possibly even the whole community’s lineage for generations, showing up in the form of addiction, despair, and hopelessness. “Grief has a sound, and it goes to the core,” Prechtel writes. Mourning is a form of love, and of protection for future generations.[iv]

These beliefs, from both Mayan cultures like Tzʼutujil people and Celtic cultures of Ireland and Scotland, may feel unfamiliar. But they reflect a deep understanding about how grief works, and how unprocessed grief is passed down, and damaging.

My own Scottish ancestors were some of the ones I was told the most about by my grandmother, who bought each of her grandchildren pajamas in the ancestral plaid of her family line. Far from weeping publicly in a ritual artform, in my family today, however, we give each other praise for “keeping it together” after someone has died . Funerals are oftentimes when we try very hard to cheer each other up. The nightgown my grandma gave me was itchy and had an embarrassing lace collar but I wore it proudly, knowing it was a gift that had to do with the people I came from. Where did their gift of keening go?

Like much of the history of culture, the loss of keening has to do with imperial religion and male power. In tension with the presence of the keening women at wakes, keening challenged male Catholic priests’ authority: it was their job, and the job of the institution of the Church as a whole, to ensure the passage of the soul to the afterlife, not of unkempt women who had experienced a life of loss. Further, beliefs about the resurrection created something of a theological objection to loud public grief. In 581 at the Council of Toledo, the sixty-two gathered bishops deemed that it was important to put an end to customs of burial song and common practices of the family and loved ones of the deceased “beating their breasts,”[v] a common practice in many places converted to Christianity.

I will leave it to the historians to explain more of their motivations. But we know the bishops at Toledo wrote that these customs were not appropriate for Christians. They interpreted 1 Thessalonians 4:13 as a discouragement for Christians to grieve the dead, which, in their eyes, was a sign of not having hope in the resurrection. The history is long and exhausting of men thinking they know so much about God that they refuse to let people be human.

And so around the time my great great grandfather came from Scotland to Pennsylvania, the Church had been successful in suppressing keening. It all but died out in Scotland by the mid 1800s, and by the mid-twentieth century in Ireland. It is now fodder for folklorists to dig up, an entire way of experiencing death denigrated to faint memory and recordings.

In another century, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, during #NamingTheLost, I witnessed women yet again take responsibility for the ritual of public mourning.

As I watched my colleagues and other volunteers read names, the vigil linked my body with the readers’ bodies, the readers’ bodies with the grieving family members of those who now are experiencing the breathlessness that I experienced in the first few days, weeks and months after my parent died. Together, our bodies ululated in a collective moan that perhaps, has helped the dead to the other side.

Being quite alive myself, I know very little about the afterlife. But I thought about the times I had wept so freely and fully for my parent and how physically and spiritually all-consuming this had been, how it felt like it moved some kind of needle, for the both of us — freeing things inside of me, and perhaps, freeing more of parent herself on her soul’s next journey.

Without this kind of movement on a collective scale, we do a disservice to ourselves, to those lost, and to future generations that will deal with our ghosts of those who go unnamed and not properly grieved by our society. They will be the ghosts not of our loved ones, but of our inhumanity: our pay-to-play healthcare system, our white supremacy, disdain for workers, our segregated world in which like in that of the prophet Amos, the rich shelter in beach homes while the poor are sold to the ICU for a pair of sandals they packaged for Amazon.

When I wonder how many keening women it might take to sing to mourn those who have died worldwide in the pandemic, my imagination isn’t big enough. It would take crowds and crowds of us, moaning in a wail that might cause seismic shakes. We would combine our tears into a river that might make the oceans rise even more than they already are.

No, we could not keen enough. Even if keening and other death wails were still common practice, even if we were all to stop in our tracks to weep, there might not be enough sound or saltwater for us to help the souls of the lost to safe refuge on the other side of life, or to help our own systems calibrate to a world in which they are gone.

We could not keen enough for those lost to coronavirus, and who will be lost worldwide, when different decisions of governments and employers could have saved them. Nor for people lost to police brutality and vigilante racist violence, nor for those thousands who have died crossing the Mexican desert, drowned in the waves of the Mediterranean looking for refuge, or for lives lost in wars for oil, the soldiers, and the bombed.

Who will sing for the dead, and let their voice shake?

Changing our own practices and beliefs about grief and death helps, and people of faith have a responsibility to demand and create spaces of public mourning when the lives of people of color, workers, elders, sick and disabled people who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic are considered disposable.

We can also look to customs of grief to teach us something about God.

Listening to the names of the dead and reading them in the paper, letting my belly and vocal chords feel the tight ache of particular loss made collective, my conclusion that none of us could cry loudly enough for such tragedy is what leads me to my only answer about where God is in all this.

God is often talked about as ordaining our suffering, having some sort of grand plan which we must be thankful for. But I see God in these times having little time for planning. God is not waiting at the resurrection unfeelingly, untouched by the pain of vast loss.

At the graveside of the lost, God the Keening Woman bangs the earth and her breast. She pulls at her clothes. Her eyes are tired from crying. With outbreaths like grace, her voice creates eerie, devastating beauty in the space between half-notes, sounding the grief our tear ducts are not big enough for and that too many of our cultures have rooted out of us.

Here are the chaotic moans, the ululations of what it means to love. The sound of God-with-us.

[i] Calling the Keeners: The Image of the Wailing Woman As Symbol of Survival in a Traumatized World, L. Juliana M. Claassens, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. Vol. 26, No. 1, Special Introduction from the Religion and Politics Editor (Spring 2010), pp. 63-77.

[ii] Interview with Phyllida Anam-Áire by Maeve Gavin, Edinburgh 2017. “The Keening Tradition.” The Keening Wake. <http://www.keeningwake.com/keening-tradition/>

[iii] Martin Prechtel, The Smell of Rain on Dust, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2005, 31.

[iv] Prechtel 39.

[v] Prechtel31.

Rev. Margaret Ernst serves as Program Manager for Faith Matters Network, which catalyzes personal and social change by equipping community organizers, faith leaders, and activists with resources for connection, spiritual sustainability, and accompaniment. She is an ordained in the United Church of Christ and serves as Associate Pastor for Community Engagement at Chestnut Hill United Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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