The Weird World of Death

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Why do we fear death?

"The difficulty about all this dying, is that you can't tell a fellow anything about it, so where does the fun come in?" Alice James

It’s the ultimate ending for us all. We can't duck it. We can't shy away. We can't pretend it doesn't happen. We are of course talking about death.

Is it just physical? Is it a spiritual transition? Perhaps we will never know. Nevertheless as humans we strive to see deeper into this weird world of death - trying to grasp some meaning from its mysteries.

Mirrors have all kinds of superstitions and legends attached to them.
Mirrors have all kinds of superstitions and legends attached to them. | Source
Owls and other species of birds have long been associated with death and the supernatural.
Owls and other species of birds have long been associated with death and the supernatural. | Source

25 most popular superstitions around the world

The most common death superstitions

"It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens." - Woody Allen

Let's have a look at some of the most common superstitions that have arisen around the subject of death.

Mirrors

The tradition of covering a mirror with a black cloth when someone dies initially goes back to ancient times.

When a person had died – especially when it was a violent death - all the mirrors in the home would be covered immediately by cloth.

The reason for this was the belief that a returning spirit could use a looking glass as a portal.

In the case of a violent end, a cloth covering the mirror would ensure that the enraged spirit could not find a living person to possess in order to revenge his premature demise.

In later times, mirrors in the room of the dead person were covered – even if the death was not brutal - as it was believed a living person seeing their reflection would join the dead person soon.

It was also believed that a mirror falling and breaking of its own accord was a sign that a death in the family was due to take place.

Birds/Animals

Birds and other animals were often seen as omens or in some other way associated with death.

Owls

An owl looking in your window or if you happen to see one during the daylight hours was a sure sign that someone was about to die.

Crows

Crows were another sign that death was near and this was particularly true if you heard them 'caw'.

Sparrow

If a sparrow or robin enters your house this was a sign of a death in the family. An older tradition states that if a sparrow flies into the house you must catch it and kill it in order to ward off a family death.

For the sake of the cute little sparrows luckily this superstition has remained in the past. The belief itself may be connected to the idea of a life for a life. Or when death comes to claim a life, the sparrow is substituted for a person.

Dogs

There is a traditional poem relating to dogs howling as a sign of death - "...dogs howling in the dark of night, howl for death before daylight..." Dogs are also thought to be guardians of cemeteries. For the most part they tend to be very large and black in colour.

The howling of a black dog in particular was a frightening sound as it symbolised a death approaching.

Not all dogs were thought of as guardians. Many superstitions believed that the devil took the form of a black dog and scoured the graveyards looking for lost souls.

Insects

Insects are also involved in death superstitions. One states that if a white moth is in the house or trying to enter, it is a sign of death approaching.

Albatross

For hundreds of years the albatross has been a potent sign for seamen. Not only did the bird give warnings of approaching storms but it was also believed to contain the spirit of dead seamen.

Nightjar

The nocturnal bird the nightjar has often been associated with death. One other name for this bird, primarily used in central and northern England, is 'corpsefowl'. Many believed that the bird was the reincarnation of children that died without being baptised.

Many household objects have old superstitions attached to them.
Many household objects have old superstitions attached to them. | Source

Objects and death

"Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it." Somerset Maugham


The following are traditional beliefs surrounding death and dying. Some may be familiar others might be new:

Ladders

Ladders have always been associated with superstition even in the present day. As we all know walking under one is deemed to be unlucky.

However going back in time prisoners were sometimes hanged from the top of a ladder. It was believed that their spirit would then linger within the space created by the ladder and prop. Therefore it was unlucky to walk underneath as you would encounter the evil spirits of the executed prisoners.

Items In The Home

Many of these beliefs date back to the time when the majority of people died in their own homes.

The body would also be washed and prepared by the family. Finally the deceased member of the household would make their last journey to the cemetery from their home. It is not unusual then to discover many superstitions have grown up around common everyday items.

Candles

Candles are often used as a symbolism for the spirit and were used frequently in the past as part of celebrations for certain times of the year.

For example a very old tradition was to place a candle in the window on Halloween in order to guide the spirit of the ancestors back to the home. The family would also leave food and drink in their honour.

On November 1st people would often light candles to pay tribute to the dead. One candle would be lit for every person who had died in the home and it would be placed in the room where their death had occurred.

Umbrella

An umbrella put up in the house has for many years been frowned on as it attracts bad luck. However be wary about also dropping one in the home as this was seen as a sign that a murder was about to take place.


Clocks

When someone in the house died it was customary to stop the clocks immediately. Not to do so would mean bad luck for everyone in the home.

It was also believed that a broken clock that suddenly begins to work is a sign that someone in the family will soon die.

Numerous people would not wind their clocks until the body had left the house.


Photographs

Photographs, for obvious reasons, are a more recent superstition. It’s believed that if a photograph is taken of three people the middle person will die first.


Dinner invitations

Ladies in the past had to be very cautious about how many guests were invited to dinner. You could never invite thirteen. To do so would mean that one of them would die before the year was over.

People as well as animals are associated with graveyards both as protectors and as spirit hauntings.
People as well as animals are associated with graveyards both as protectors and as spirit hauntings. | Source
The eyes are very delicate organs and within the realm of superstition it's believed they react to approaching death.
The eyes are very delicate organs and within the realm of superstition it's believed they react to approaching death. | Source

Customs and superstitions

Where you live are there any specific customs or superstitions relating to death?

See results without voting

People and graveyard superstitions

There are a number of superstitions surrounding death, people and cemeteries.

Eyes

The eyes being ‘the window to the soul’ have always been surrounded by myth and superstition.

It was believed that a twitching left eye meant a death in the family would soon follow. When a person did die, it was important to close their eyes or the dead would claim one of the living to go with them.

Dreams

The ability to speak to the dead was often thought to be given to those who were born on Halloween.

People have been fascinated and sometimes frightened by the dreams they have. For example if you dream about birth then this is said to symbolise a death.

Similarly if someone in your family died, touching them would prevent you having dreams about them.

Women in black

It was never permitted to bury a woman if she was dressed in black as doing so would entice the spirit back to haunt the family.

It was also advisable to cover the body as soon as possible. Since anyone who happened to look on the corpse would die next.

Dying on a day of celebration

If, when your time had come, you were fortunate to die either on Good Friday or Christmas Eve then your spirit was taken directly to Heaven.

The reason for this was that at these special times the gates of Heaven were believed to remain open.

Rituals

When a member of your family died you had to perform certain rituals.

This involved both opening the window to release their spirit and to ensure all doors were unlocked.

Keeping all doors and windows locked meant that the spirit became trapped and unable to rest in peace.

The Cemetery

The number of beliefs and superstitions surrounding the loved ones last journey is fascinating.

Here are just a few:

Whoever is the most recent person to be buried in a graveyard had the duty of being the 'watcher' or 'guardian' of the cemetery.

Often this led to violent squabbles if there were two funerals at the same time. Rival families would fight viciously to try to ensure that their deceased relative would not end up being ‘the watcher’.

A person who became a ‘watcher’ meant that their spirit remained trapped until another burial took place.

Final snippets

  • Nothing new should be worn to a funeral. New shoes in particular should be avoided as this will invoke bad luck against the wearer.
  • It was deemed unlucky for pregnant women to attend funerals.
  • Whatever grew on or around your grave would determine if you had been a good person or a sinner. If you were basically a good soul, flowers would be in abundance around your grave. If however, only weeds are found this meant you were a sinner.
  • While walking past a cemetery, if you want to avoid breathing in the spirit of a recently dead person you must hold your breath until you have passed the boundary of the cemetery.
  • Not only was it bad luck to have a funeral on Friday but you would encourage another death to occur if you counted the number of cars in the procession.


I hope you've found these beliefs and superstitions interesting. If you have any stories you would like to share then let us know in the comments section.

© 2011 Helen Murphy Howell

More by this Author


Comments 21 comments

ImChemist profile image

ImChemist 5 years ago

Wow very helpful informative hub , thanks for sharing it.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi ImChemist,

Many thanks for stopping by and for such a great comment - glad you enjoyed it!!


g82hug profile image

g82hug 5 years ago from San Pedro, CA

Great Hub! Loaded with information. I'm going to read it again :-)


ChristineRitter profile image

ChristineRitter 5 years ago from Ohio

WOW! I LOVE this hub, even bookmarked it for further reference. Thanks for sharing. Will be reading all your hubs, as they look equally intriguing. Kudos!


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi, g82hug - many thanks for stopping by and your smashing comment - it really is appreciated. Thank you!!!

Hi, Christine Ritter - thank you as well for stopping by and for such a great comment - it makes it all worthwhile if readers enjoy the hubs. Thanks you!!!


kashmir56 profile image

kashmir56 5 years ago from Massachusetts

Hi Seeker, A very interesting hub which i enjoyed reading thanks for sharing it !


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Kashmir56,

Really glad you enjoyed the hub and many thanks for stopping by.


TnFlash profile image

TnFlash 5 years ago from Tampa, Florida

Great Hub! This has been interesting information. Rated-up, awesome, followed, and twittered.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hello again TnFlash,

Thank you so much for you smashing comment - makes the the hard work really worth while if folks get something out of what you've written. Many thanks again.


vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 5 years ago

Interesting hub! I do not understand one superstition though - the one of a chill running up the spine - how can a spirit walk over the grave if the person is not dead yet?


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi vox vocis,

Hi thanks for stopping by and for the nice comment.

The superstition relates back to times when people were in smaller communities. It was unlucky to walk over any ground that was going to be used for future buriels. If this did happen then the person who was due to be buried in the spot walked over, would feel a chill up the spine. Whether accidently or not, someone walking over 'your patch' meant your death was going to be soon. Alternatively spirits were suppose to give 'warning' to a person who was about to join their realm and they did this by the 'chill up the spine', but it was believed they also visited the area where your bones were to be laid and this also caused the 'chill up the spine'. There are so many superstitions relating to this that I really had to cut it down drastically. But thanks for the question.


toknowinfo profile image

toknowinfo 5 years ago

Well done hub! I never thought about how much superstition and history there was to this topic. Very well put together article. Am glad they don't do those kinds of trials in Scotland anymore. Thanks for sharing this info. Rated up awesome and funny


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi toknowinfo,

Many thanks for stopping by and for the nice comment. I was a bit shocked myself at the amount of superstitions around!! And yes, I agree, very glad that Scotland's trials are a bit more moderate.


Minnetonka Twin profile image

Minnetonka Twin 5 years ago from Minnesota

Very fun and mysterious hub. I probably shouldn't of read it this late. Every noise I hear makes me jump. Nice writing and you did a good job of spookin me. :)


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Minnetonka Twin, great to hear from you and thanks for stopping by. Hope you managed to get to sleep after being spooked???? I have to admit that a couple of the things I was writing about definitely sent chills up my spine so you are not alone.


Ashantina profile image

Ashantina 5 years ago

This is probably the most interesting and comprehensive hub article I've ever read on the subject of death!! I've always wondered where those superstitions originate and if there was any truth to them..... and I love that quote by the henpecked hubby :)) Up


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Ashantina, many thanks for leaving such a nice comment. I have to say that the 'humorous' bits of the article were the most fun to research and write.


lobonorth profile image

lobonorth 5 years ago

What a lot of fascinating information you have assembled Seeker7; I must admit that I was looking for some of your own experiences after you have spoken of them in a comment.

Death does seem a topic that can be mined endlessly for good reason. And your Hub is a fine addition to all of us who take an interest in such things.

Thanks, Lobo


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Lobo,

Many thanks for your lovely comment and for stopping by.

Yes I have had a few experiences over the years, both on a personal level and while working as a nurse, looking after terminally ill patients. I think I always have the idea that my experiences are maybe too boring for people to want to listen to. But for what it's worth here is one of the strongest experiences that happened, not long after my Mum died.

They are very personal and I'm sure most sceptics would put the experience down to grief/wishful thinking and/or hallucination/temporal lobe epilepsy and god knows what else - my experiences were neither. Anyway, the bottom line is, I saw Mum physically and also in a very lucid dream state that same night. She was carrying a small baby, who had very dark hair. My Mum looked both sad and happy. She said to tell my sister Tricia not to worry that her baby girl is ok. But I didn't really know what she was talking about but I felt uneasy - (also we didn't know what sex the baby was, since my sister and brother-in-law didn't care what sex the baby was going to be). When I got up the next morning I received a telephone call from my Brother-in-law to say that Tricia had unexpectedly miscarried a baby girl. When I spoke to my sister later that day, she was obviously traumatised, but did tell me that the baby was a beautiful wee girl with a mop of jet black hair like her Dad. It was actually a few days later before I told her about what Mum had said.

I've had very similar experiences over the years, as I said earlier, both personally and at work - and I know that scientifically etc., it probably doesn't add up to much. But frankly I really don't care what science says or what science professes to know. The experiences I've had happened, the people or spirits were there. I don't know how the spiritual works or why it works, but it does. Anyway, huge apologies for the 'novel' and hope I haven't bored you. Many thanks again for stopping by it really is appreciated. Seekr7.


Phil Plasma profile image

Phil Plasma 5 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

Of course, as we get older we tent to think more about our mortality. I'm 38 years old at the moment and so far am not giving it too much thought. How much does someone who is 70 or 80 years old think about it?

Very interesting hub, earning you a vote-up, awesome and interesting.


Seeker7 profile image

Seeker7 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland Author

Hi Phil,

Lovely to hear from you. Glad that you liked the hub.

Maybe it's because of my profession - nursing - but death is something I have dealth with since I was 17. Most of my career has been working with elderly people. For the most part they are very accepting that their time is near. Many have often said to me that they are tired and ready to go. This I can understand. They have reached a time in life when they feel they have achieved what they can. Many of their loved ones and friends are gone and I think they just want to be with all those they miss once again.

Many thanks again for stopping by and for your interesting input.

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