Keening is a traditional form of vocal lament for the dead.
"Keen" as a noun or verb comes from the Irish and Scottish Gaelic term caoineadh ("to cry, to weep") and references to it from the seventh, eighth and twelfth centuries are extensive.
Written sources that refer to the practice in Ireland and Gaelic Scotland appear from the sixteenth century on.
The Irish tradition of keening over the body during the funeral procession and at the burial site is distinct from the wake — the practice of watching over the corpse – which takes place the night before the burial, and may last for more than one night.
The "keen" itself is thought to have been constituted of stock poetic elements (the listing of the genealogy of the deceased, praise for the deceased, emphasis on the woeful condition of those left behind etc.) set to vocal lament. While generally carried out by one or several women, a chorus may have been intoned by all present. Physical movements involving rocking, kneeling or clapping accompanied the keening woman (bean chaointe) who was often paid for her services.
John Millington Synge's one-act play Riders to the Sea features a chorus of women from the Aran Islands mourning the death of their loved ones at sea.
- Breandán Ó Madagáin, Caointe agus Seancheolta Eile [Keening and other Old Irish Musics] (in Irish), IE: Cló Iar-Chonnachta, 2005.
- Marcello Sorce Keller, “Expressing, Communicating, Sharing and Representing Grief and Sorrow with Organized Sound (Musings in Eight Short Sentences)”, in Stephen Wild, Di Roy, Aaron Corn, and Ruth Lee Martin (eds.), Humanities Research: One Common Thread the Musical World of Lament, Australian National University, Vol. XIX (2013), no. 3, 3–14.