According to Irish legend, centuries ago on the British Isles, where cemeteries were running out of burial space, graves got dug up to reuse or make better use of the small plots of land. It was discovered that many coffins had scratch marks inside indicating that some of the departed were not actually dead at the time of burial. Graveyard workers decided to tie string onto the wrist of each corpse, guiding it up from the casket through the earth, and tie it to a bell above ground so that, if it rang, grave diggers could save the buried person. Those hired to stay through the night in cemeteries listening for ringing bells earned the term graveyard shift and those who got dug up by them were saved by the bell.
Further folklore tells that after reemerging into society, those thought to be dead were periodically spotted by acquaintances, unaware of their resurrection. These formerly deceased persons who had been mistakenly buried became known as dead ringers because of how they got raised up. People might approach them and say something like, “You look just like my late friend, Molly Coughlin…” Soon enough, the phrase became associated with look-alikes, as someone might say, “You’re a dead ringer for Liam Fitzpatrick…”
Oral tradition from the emerald isle thickens with tales of Irishmen bodies found along roadsides between their local pubs and homes as mornings dawned. They unknowingly drank a potentially lethal concoction of ale or whiskey mixed with lead content from pewter mugs. The bodies were carried to their homes and laid out where friends and relatives could come and view them, console their families, inquire about, and pray for, their recovery, visit with others, tell stories, and share a meal and/or drink—often many drinks to toast or cheer their companion who tottered between this world and another. These visitations would last for three days in imitation of Jesus’ three days in the tomb. During that time, visitors verified whether the person was actually dead or if he was just mostly dead and would wake from the mortal inebriation. According to folktale, this began the tradition of Irish Wakes. The community was more assured this way that when the one for whom the bell tolls got carried into church for his own funeral, he was truly dead.
In the madness of March as we approach the Irish feast of Saint Patrick’s Day and tap into our Celtic cultic heritage and the wearin’ of the green, we connect this annual springtime ritual with Lent and our earthly journey. Green symbolizes the old sod of that lush and verdant landscape yet also reminds us that we are dust and unto dust we shall return, back to the earth. “Human” comes from the Latin “humus” which means earthen or grounded. To be truly human means to be grounded in our human heritage and connected to the first human who was formed from the dirt. Like him, our bodies will one day be reunited with the earth, but our souls will be received by God.
I don’t know if the legends of Irish burial or phrases that arose from them are historically accurate, embellished, or totally twisted, but it may not matter, for they point to a deeper truth that we revisit each Lent: that God saves us beyond the grave. Let us be grateful for that as we celebrate life. Happy Saint Paddy’s Day!