Seamus Heaney’s poem “Funeral Rites” emphasizes social awareness, especially in its overt references to the violent "Troubles” between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Each section, in fact, is strongly social in emphasis. The first section focuses on family funerals; the second section focuses on the burial of someone killed in “The Troubles”; the third section alludes to early mythology and to a burial from centuries earlier.
In section I, the speaker recalls how, when younger, he began to act as a man by acting as a pall-bearer at family funerals. He describes in detail the corpses he viewed, presumably those of elderly or sickly relatives who had died “natural” deaths, not deaths caused by violence. This opening section of the poem is the least overtly “social,” and one of its main purposes is to contrast with the sections that come later, especially section II.
Section II is the portion of the poem most obviously marked by social and political and religious awareness. It opens, paradoxically, by referring to news of “each neighbourly murder,” a highly ironic phrase that also reminds us that much of the violence committed in Northern Ireland was committed by people who often lived in close physical proximity. However, the murders that disrupt the daily rhythms and routines of life are partially compensated for by the “ceremony” and “customary” rhythms of funerals. The funerals described earlier had been mostly family affairs; the funerals described here are, instead, massive public displays, involving whole sectarian communities – Protestants participating in Protestant funerals, Catholics in funerals for Catholics:
Out of side-streets and bye-roads
purring family cars
nose into line,
the whole country tunes
to the muffled drumming
of ten thousand engines.
Ironically, such funerals were often intended as displays of sectarian solidarity and of the social power of each half of a divided community. In a sense, the funerals were themselves often means and forms of social conflict. Such funerals often sought to build solidarity within divided communities, not between them. This interpretation is perhaps supported by the reference to aggrieved womenfolk, described as “Somnambulant women” (widows? mothers? sisters? all three?), left behind and at home (because public funerals traditionally involved male participants) -- women “imagining our slow triumph towards the mounds.” The long line of cars in the funeral procession is compared to a long, slithering snake moving through the countryside – perhaps an allusion to the evil of the fall in the Garden of Eden, perhaps also an allusion to the idea that there are – or should be – no snakes in Ireland. Surely the speaker of the poem wishes that no more such snakes as this one existed in his homeland.
Section III is far less clear than the first two sections, and it has sometimes been criticized on that account. The speaker seems to allude to ancient Irish or even ancient Norse mythology (as various critics have noted), but he also seems to allude to Christian myths of the burial and resurrection of Christ, as in the first two and the last three lines of the section). Section III alludes to the distant past in order to evoke a possible future when violent deaths, of Christians killing Christians, might someday cease.