There’s a story in my family about my great grandmother. She died at home in southern Ohio, very near the Ohio River. She was surrounded by family in her bed. As was the usual custom of the time, my great aunts, who were standing at the foot of the bed, let out the death wail.
The death wail is a very traditional keening cry done at a family member’s death. Its not something you see very often anymore, but when you hear it, you’ll never mistake it for anything else. It’s an eery noise that will haunt you for a long time. (The British Library has a recording of one that you can hear here: death wail on wax cylinder).
So my great grandmother dies. The doctor who was also there, pronounced her death and my great aunts let the death wail loose.
My great grandmother sits right back up, looks at my great aunts and asks, “Can I go now?” At the family’s shocked silence, she laid back down, closed her eyes and was gone again.
Needless to say, they did not give the death wail again and as far as I know, my great grandmother still peacefully sleeps in the family cemetery. (At least we all hope she does).
Death wails and laments were traditionally done at funerals as well and in Celtic mythology were tied to the tradition of the Banshee.
My family is very Irish and the mythology around the death wail is fairly potent.
In Irish and Celtic mythology, the Banshee (or Bansidhe) is a figure that appears to families to worn about an imminent death. There are many myths surrounding the Banshee, who is said to wail when someone is about to die. In other Celtic myths, the Banshee will be seen washing the bloody clothes or armor of those who are about to die. In Ireland, the more powerful families were said to have their own Banshees and many people refuse to marry into family’s with Banshees, since they are seen to be so unlucky.
Banshees are traditionally fairy women (who funnily enough are also known for herding fairy cattle), but they can also be the ghost of a murdered woman or just a ghost associated with the family they are forewarning.
Banshee sightings have continued to occur even over here in America, especially in the Appalachian regions that were settled by so many Celtic immigrants. Very famously, in 1874 on the Ohio River, Mary Marr met a veiled woman on her path by the river who, when greeted by Mary Marr said, “I am here to tell you, Mary Marr that Thomas Marr has just died. Say your prayers, Lady. I bid you well” and then mysteriously disappeared. Thomas Marr was Mary’s husband, and sure enough, Thomas Marr’s body was found on the riverbank later that day.
And this is not the only story of the Banshee along the Ohio River. In 1935 near Parkersburg, West Viriginia, a little girl and her grandmother supposedly met the Banshee on horseback while they walked to the outhouse before going to bed one night. This occurred during a flu epidemic. The Banshee pointed at them and said, “One of yours is to die this very night!” before disappearing before their very eyes. Sure enough, the little girl’s uncle died of the flu within the hour.
The tradition of the wailing woman is not just tied to the Banshee. The White Lady ghost tradition is found throughout Europe and Asia. And this particular ghost is famous for appearing along abandoned stretches of roads, always foreshadowing the death of a loved one. In America, the White Lady story is usually tied to the death of young women who are tragically killed in car accidents. Usually a motorist will see a woman in white walking along the road where the accident happens. If the motorist stops and picks her up to give her a ride, she will give a shriek after riding for a while and then suddenly disappear, of course scaring the m.
In the South West, you’ll find La Llorona, the ghost of a woman who murdered her children after her husband leaves her for
another woman. La Llorona is a more malevolent spirit who supposedly kills children that she meets in order to appease her own murdered children. She wanders the hills and desserts, weeping for her lost children. A famous song comes from this story:
My family has a somewhat happier ending when it comes to the death wail. My great grandfather was dying in the same bed that my great grandmother died in, and supposedly suddenly smiled. When the family asked him why he was smiling, he said that he could see my great grandmother standing in a beautiful garden. He reported that she said to him, “It’s beautiful here, you’ll like it, don’t be afraid. When you see me again, we’ll be together forever.” He died with a smile on his face a while later, proving that the foreshadowing doesn’t always need a wail, but sometimes just a quiet word.
Letting a death wail loose lets an intense amount of energy go. Grief is never an emotion to think lightly of. It’s no wonder that so much folklore and mythology surrounds women who make those types of noises. I don’t know that I agree that these ghostly figures are unlucky, but I also would prefer not to meet one unexpectedly on the road. Unlike many other fairy figures, there is no way to protect yourself against the Banshee who appears. She comes, she gives you the omen of death, and leaves. Just like the tragedies of life, the wailing woman cannot be stopped, she simply must be survived and surpassed.