Funeral Superstitions, Omens, and Folklore
Death Becomes Us
Death is something many people fear. We've been taught from a young age that death is the end of our lives, yet our ancestors had other views about death. Some believed we continued on to heaven. Some believed we continued on to some other paradise after life. Some even believed we came back to Earth in another body, a belief known as reincarnation. Whatever you might believe about what happens after death, we all know how big of an event death is. There's a mourning process, a wake or viewing, and a funeral, burial, or cremation of some kind. Depending on the religion and family, different funerals may have different traditions. In addition to your own family's funerary traditions, you may have heard different superstitions, omens, and folklore about death. Unfortunately, death is not something anyone can escape, but keep in mind that it is a natural part of the life cycle. Here are some of the old funeral traditions, superstitions, omens, and American pieces of death folklore.
Old Funeral Traditions and Superstitions
Because of the uncertainty of an afterlife, traditions and superstitions about the death and funeral of an individual have been around for ages. The concept of a soul permeates nearly every religion in the world, and therefore loved ones of a deceased individual feel its their duty to help aid the soul wherever it may go after death. Often families will pass down death and funeral customs to their descendants and down the line they go. Many of the American funeral traditions come from Europe or Africa or other countries, brought here by the immigrants over the span of the last four centuries.
You may or may not have heard the term "wake". A wake is a watchful vigil over the deceased body a day or so after the person dies. Traditionally, family and loved ones will come to the home of the deceased and watch over the deceased together. The wake is said to be an old Celtic tradition in Ireland and other Celtic countries in Europe. There is sometimes food, drinks, and partying involved as a means of celebrating the passed loved one's life. Originally, the "wake" was thought to be a way to watch over the newly deceased's body so that the soul didn't stick around or that an evil spirit wouldn't try to invade the newly deceased body. Other theories say the "wake" was to watch over the dead in case the individual awakened from his/her sleep. This could point to the fact that sometimes people were pronounced dead but ended up not being truly dead. Wakes are still done in the deep south, but the tradition has largely been replaced in the United States with a modern "viewing" of the deceased at the funeral home.
An old custom of covering the mirrors is fading out of popularity in modern times; however, some families still do this after a loved one passes. You might have seen this tradition played out on the big screen. In Fried Green Tomatoes, following the death of one of the main characters, the clock is stopped and the mirrors are covered. This death custom dates back centuries and has a firm place in some Jewish, Catholic, and other homes. There are different theories behind this superstition, but the modern take is to allow mourners to mourn without seeing themselves in the mirror. Older theories suggest people believed mirrors would confuse the newly departed soul and potentially trap it on this earthly plane or in the mirror itself. Others maintain the death of a person attracts evil spirits, and if the mourners look in the mirrors they will see these spirits' reflection. If the mirrors are covered, the mourners won't see any of the potential spirits in the household.
Clocks play a part in the death of an individual in some households, as well. An old death custom was to cover or stop the clocks after someone died. Stopping the clock could have a logical explanation in that people wanted to know what time the person died to tell the coroner/undertaker. Another theory that reflects the covered mirror custom says that the clocks should be covered to allow the soul to move on. If the spirit sees what time it is, it might decide to stay longer and end up a ghost in the house. Clocks being stopped but not covered might be to allow the mourners time to mourn, without worrying about the amount of time going by.
Opening a window after someone has passed is traditional and allows the soul to leave the earthly plane and be guided to heaven. Sources online say this is an old Danish tradition, while others argue it is nearly worldwide.
Ever wonder why there's flowers at a funeral? Most people might think flowers are simply showing loved ones' care and love for the deceased, but there's a more grisly past. In Victorian times, the deceased would sometimes have to wait a few days before being picked up by the local undertaker for burial. To combat any overpowering smells from the body, flowers were placed over and all around it. Some say this is an urban legend, yet the logic is there.
Omens and Signs
Omens and signs come to us in all shapes and sizes and during different phases of our lives. You might see a pair of redbirds as a sign that you're going to meet the love of your life. Or maybe a cloud in the sky is shaped like a dollar sign indicating you'll be coming into money. Sometimes before a death in the family you will get a sign or an omen in various forms. These signs vary by culture and region. What might be an omen of death in one culture or family is a sign of good luck to others.
Some death omens and signs include:
- A random rattling sound like that of bones rattling foretells an oncoming death in the household.
- The sound of ripping sheets or linens also foretells death.
- Breaking a mirror can mean seven years of bad luck or an oncoming death.
- Ringing in the ears foretells a death. Soft ringing—a person in your family, but loud ringing—a person held in high regard like a politician. This is known as the "death bells".
- A dog that howls four times while under the front porch foretells a death.
- If a songbird, bat, or owl gets into the house it is a bad omen.
- If a rooster crows near the doorway and someone is ill in the house, this is an omen of death.
- To see a person's doppelganger (double/twin) is an omen of death.
- Carrying an ax into the house means death.
- To sweep under an ill person's bed is to bring on death.
- An old superstition says to never move a dying man from one bed to another, potentially symbolizing his "death bed."
- A cradle that rocks on its own foretells death in the family.
- The sudden sight of a white animal, such as a dog or horse, is a bad omen.
- A mysterious knock or rapping on a wall foretells a death in the household.
- Hearing a shriek or scream nearby is an omen of death (this relates back to the Irish legend of the banshee's scream).
- The bark of a dog or fox nearby an ill person's room signals death is coming.
Creepy American Funeral Folklore and Stories
Sin eaters were people who were thought to have the spiritual power to "eat the sins" of a dying or deceased person. The sin-eater's origins are exactly known, as the creepy tradition pops up randomly across the globe, but it is believed it was once a common English funerary practice. There is mention of sin-eaters in the deep south in the United States as late as mid-twentieth century. A loaf of bread would be placed on the chest of the deceased, and then the sin-eater would eat the bread. The bread was thought to absorb the deceased's sins, and then the sin-eater would literally and symbolically consume the sin thereby freeing the deceased from the stain of sin.
The phrases "saved by the bell" and "dead-ringer" are known in American folklore to have origins in the graveyard. It was said that sometimes people were buried alive, and if ever their coffins were to be opened, scratch marks could be seen in the coffin's interior (presumably from the nails of the person who was buried alive trying to scratch their way out). A creepy practice of tying a bell to a rope that was connected to the inside of the casket would ensure that the believed-dead would be able to signal they were still alive. Thankfully with modern medicine, we are able to truly tell if a person is dead now instead of just guessing.
An old American ghost story was re-told by Alvin Schwartz in his books "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" called "Cold as Clay". It tells of a farmhand who dies and is buried, unbeknownst to his lover. He visits her and she gives him her handkerchief. When the woman finds out he's been dead, the man's body is dug up and he's found clutching her handkerchief. This is a common macabre motif in American Folklore - "the person was dead the entire time!"
In the nineteenth century, a vampire scare spread through parts of New England. A superstition that freshly dead bodies could be possessed and animated by evil spirits fueled this "vampire hunt". One particularly well-known story is the tale of Mercy Brown. Mercy was a girl who died of consumption (today known as tuberculosis), and whose body was exhumed because her father was convinced she was one of the living dead feeding on his last-living child. They removed her heart, burned it, and then fed the ashes to the dying child in beliefs that it would drive off his vampire sister and heal him. Needless to say, the boy died anyway and Mercy Brown was most likely not a vampire.
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© 2018 Nicole Canfield