Angela’s Ashes

Readers expressed interest in a custom seen in the film “Angela’s Ashes.” As a horse-drawn hearse carried the body of one of Angela’s babies to a Limerick graveyard, women lined the road and sloshed buckets of water in the horse’s pathway just before it passed.

Its meaning was elusive. No reference appeared in the book or the screenplay or library resources that I checked. One member of the Irish American community said, “I saw the movie and was wondering the same thing myself.”

Father Patrick O’Brien of the Mission San Buenaventura had no familiarity with the practice but observed that the Irish have a great reverence for funeral processions. Businesses stop when a cortege passes; shopkeepers shut their doors and pull the blinds. An Irish neighbor recalled a belief that if you encounter a funeral procession coming toward you and don’t change direction to walk with it, misfortune might befall you.

Finally, an answer came from the picture’s co-producer, David Wimbury of Dirty Hands Productions. Their London-based Irish prop man had suggested the scene based on a practice of the past. The water used to wash the corpse before placement in the coffin was traditionally kept to be thrown in front of the hooves of the horse drawing the funeral carriage. Later, this developed into the symbolic act of neighbors and family throwing buckets of water as a mark of respect for the dead.


Norine Dresser’s latest book is “Multicultural Celebrations” (Three Rivers Press, 1999). E-mail: