Keening Rituals and History in Mourning

Published September 18, 2020
 Keening Ritual

Keening is an improvised vocalization that is spontaneously performed, typically by three women, that can take place at a wake or graveside. Keening is led by emotions and is unique in sound every time it occurs, as the deceased individual serves as the inspiration for this meaningful ritual.


Keening is a cathartic expression of grief that honors the life of the deceased individual. Some aspects of keening that may take place during a wake or graveside:

  • Clapping and rocking
  • Wailing and crying out
  • Beating one's breasts

Keening was typically performed by three women who were loved ones of the deceased individual, or were hired as professional keeners.

What Does Keening Mean?

The word keening comes from the Gaelic word, caoineacdh, which means crying or weeping.

Keening Sound

It can be tricky to find authentic, spontaneous songs of Irish keening that were documented because the ritual was kept very private. The keening sound may include loud cries, wailing, rhythmic chanting, and spontaneous singing. Examples of keening used in songs:

Irish Keening

The keening tradition is a centuries old ritual that was originally practiced during the wake. The history of the keening wake evolved from the cries or verbal reactions of those who had just learned of the passing of a loved one and later evolved to keening at the wake.

History of Irish Keening

In the early 1600s, the Roman Catholic Church took an opposing stance against these wakes, noting that they reflected Pagan beliefs, and by the 1800s, the keening tradition wasn't as present. Keening has seen a resurgence and is thought to be more widely practiced in rural Irish communities, although with so much secrecy around this tradition, it's difficult to know if keening was less widely practiced, or more secretly practiced.

What Is an Irish Lament?

According to Your Dictionary, a lament is, " expression of loss, sometimes through artistic expression." Lamenting may be expressed through art, poetry, singing, dance, spoken word, body movements, wailing, and crying out. Irish keening is a type of lamenting.

What Is a Mourning Ritual?

A mourning ritual is a custom or tradition that is used to honor the life of a deceased loved one, often while providing support to those in the process of mourning. Some rituals may date back for generations, while other rituals may be more contemporary. Mourning rituals may provide a semblance of closure, as for some individuals, they may feel as if the ritual clearly marks the end of their loved one's life.

What Is Keening in China?

Keening is not only seen in Irish cultural traditions. In ancient China, ritual wailing was part of the lamenting process when someone passed away. Wailing at a funeral was seen as an appropriate way to pass on your condolences after an individual passed away. Wailing is still an aspect of contemporary Chinese death rituals.

What's the Tradition of Irish Keening?

Irish keening is a tradition that honors the life of the deceased individual and may provide a cathartic release for those participating, as well as those witnessing this expression of grief and loss.

Keening Rituals and History in Mourning