The Weird World of Death
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.
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.
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 and other animals were often seen as omens or in some other way associated with death.
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 were another sign that death was near and this was particularly true if you heard them 'caw'.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
Customs and superstitions
Where you live are there any specific customs or superstitions relating to death?
People and graveyard superstitions
There are a number of superstitions surrounding death, people and cemeteries.
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.
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.
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 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.
- 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