Luskentyre (Losgaintir in Gaelic) is probably the most famous beach in the whole of the Western Isles; it certainly is one of the most spectacular ones with a haunting beauty, endless white sand and sparkling emerald water. What a place to bury the dead!
Burying near a beach is standard practice on the Island of Harris and Lewis, whereas it is rather unusual on the mainland to bury the dead in sand. It makes sense on the islands, the layer of earth is thin on this rocky surface. Apart from the practical reason there might also be a sterner, more religious aspect to why it is done. Faith still plays a very important role in the Outer Hebrides. Beaches are for fun, they are the icons for the lust of life in most parts of the world. Not here. Is it the Calvinist approach to negate fun on the beach by placing the burial ground right next to it?
If so, aren’t they forgetting that with every memento mori there also is a carpe diem? Remember that you have to die. And then seize the day!
Take Brazil for example. Here the beaches are full of life, a place to eat and drink, be active, meet others, even display your youth and your body as good as you can. How different a beach is in the Western Isles and not only because of the weather. It is in keeping with the general attitude towards the lighter aspects of life.
But that is pure conjecture. Burying the dead away from the living and their water supply is actually nothing but common sense.
“People regularly viewed the remains, or sat by them. At least two sunrises, and often three (especially if there was an intervening Sabbath, when neither burials nor marriages are conducted on Lewis and Harris), elapsed before the funeral proper. Though deftly incorporated into the new Evangelical order, the origins of this protracted wake are both pagan and essentially practical. The remains were watched (the local phrase for wake, thaigh-fhaire, means ‘house of watching’) until the first slight but irrefutable indications of decay, proof definitive of death. This was no light matter when few doctors ever attended – there is at least one nineteenth-century instance, from Harris, of a woman who revived in her coffin even after the menfolk bore her to Luskentyre cemetery.”
(John MacLeod: When I Heard The Bell. The Loss of the Iolaire. Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2009, p.39)
Harris lost a few; Lewis lost many on that tragic day.
The men from Haris should not have been on the Iolair, the ship that sunk on January 1st 1919. Commander Walsh had given specific orders but 11 men chose to ignore them. They wanted to be home as early as possible. Had they taken another ship, they would have survived.
The beach remains in all its beauty untouched by the tragedy of man. Time empties everyone’s hour-glass without discern. On Harris, death on the beach does not invite visions of cool absinthe, champagne and roaring parties. Here it is a an outcome that is real, natural, and to be expected.