Monday, December 9, 2013


  On the island of Ouessant, novelist and folklorist Anatole Le Braz “discovered” a unique death custom involving an object called ‘proëlla:’

 [i]n a country where all the men are sailors, the sea demands a tribute of many of this people. The corpses which one always finds have their humble mausoleum somewhere, be that at the extreme edges of the world. But the list is long of those that the Ocean never returns, those it keeps, tossed about at the whim of the waves, an infinite and moving burial. They are the absent eternal ones, lost ‘without news’, sunk with their ship or their boat, body and goods. One resigns oneself with difficulty, in Brittany, with the thought that the ‘missing’ will never taste in the blessed earth the peace of the last rest. The anguish of the survivors seems to take on, in Ouessant, an even more obsessive nature than elsewhere in Brittany. So, as a sort of pious subterfuge, Ouessantines have invented a simulacrum of burial designed to give to the spirits of the dead the appearance of satisfaction. This is the proëlla. (1895, 195).

Jean Chièze, from Finis Terrae 1960
 Proëlla is a local neologism formed of the Breton words ‘bro’ (land or country) and ‘elez’ (repatriation) and is particular to a place that experienced a high mortality rate from disease, child mortality and death at sea. Although these conditions were found all along the coast, only on the island of Ouessant were the lost at sea mourned in this compensatory ritual in which a small, handmade wax cross symbolically repatriated a lost body (Le Braz, 1994, 193). Proëlla home wakes began in 1734 with wooden crosses.

Wood was replaced by wax in the mid nineteenth-century and the practice carried on until 1962. Echoing the symbolic substitutions and transformations of transubstantiation, the ritual object stood in for the lost body at the wake and funeral. When a family learned that one of theirs was definitively lost, a proëlla wake occurred that night at home. There, a senior widow known as the veilleuse or diseuses de grâces, recited traditional prayers for the dead in a mixture of Latin and Breton.

 Le Braz fictionalizes the essentials of this ritual in his melodramatic short story of 1901, ‘Le Sang de la Sirène’ (The Blood of the Siren). In this tale, the ominous veilleuse incants: ‘the bad waters have kept your remains, your bones will not rest in the soil of Ouessant. But your soul is here, in our midst. We feel your breath on our faces’ (1994, 200). A mass was held the day after the wake in the village church, with the cross again standing in for the body. It was then transferred to an urn mounted on an interior wall of the church; the crosses that accumulated in this urn were later transferred (either on All Souls’ Day or on the occasion of a bishop’s visit to the island) to the miniature mausoleum (built in 1868) in the cemetery.

This structure bears the inscription: ‘Here lie the proëlla crosses in memory of sailors who have died far from the land, in wars, in sickness and in shipwrecks.’ Descriptions of the proëlla wake are featured in several literary accounts such as Le Braz’s tale, but there are very few visual representations of this ritual object.

Yvonne Jean-Haffen, 1925
 It is the small tomb, charged with the memories of so many, whose scale we understand by reference to our bodies that tower above it, that repeats in narratives and images of Ouessant as a poignant reminder of the island’s losses. Many visitors to the island, who repeatedly draw, describe, and photograph it, claim to have seen nothing but women’s names in the cemetery. 

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