Sunday, October 30, 2011

Death Traditions & Superstitions

**WARNING!  Some folks might find some of the following information upsetting.**

Twenty-first century Americans rarely have to directly confront the facts of mortality since, in our society, death is largely confined to the elderly and most deaths take place, not in the home, but in hospitals and other medical care facilities. Professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and morticians handle the dying and the dead. Beginning in the 19th century, we started sanitizing and prettifying death.  Professional undertakers evolved, cemeteries starting looking more garden-like, coffins began to be called caskets, and embalming came into practice. Even our language avoids use of the word "death" by saying that people have "passed away" or that they have "lost their battle with [insert disease]."

During the 19th century, death played a larger role in everyday life.  That was a time before good medical care, immunizations, and sanitation.  I have read that a typical family could expect  that one in five children would not live to see adulthood.  In a time before antibiotics, a simple cut could lead to terrible infections and death.  Childbearing, while a joyous occasion, could also be a death warrant for many women.

In the past, the corpse would be prepared for burial at home and would be kept in the home until the burial. Even when I was growing up, some older folks still practiced this traditions.  I remember my great grandmother being prepared for burial at the funeral home, but she was brought to my grandmother's house the day before the funeral and visitation was held in the living room.  The family sat up with the corpse all night.  Some people would refer to this as the "death watch."

In a time when photographs were rare, a photographer might be called upon to take a photo of the deceased.  In many instances, this might be the only photo you would have of a loved one.   This is still practiced today in some areas. I have photos of most of my family at their funerals.  A collection of post-mortem and memorial/mourning photos

Traditions & Superstitions

The tradition of surrounding a casket with flowers was originally a way to counteract any unpleasant smells before embalming became the norm.

If there was a corpse in the house, you had to cover all of the mirrors.  Otherwise, the corpse's spirit could get trapped in the mirror.

If a mirror in your house was to fall and break by itself, it meant that someone in the home would die soon.

When someone died in the house and there was a clock in the room, you had to stop the clock at the death hour or the family of the household would have bad luck. I have also heard that if a clock stopped in the same room as the corpse, someone else in the family would die within a year.  Better to just stop the clock!

When the body was taken from the house, it had to be carried out feet first because if it was carried out head first, it could look back and beckon others to follow it into death.

Coffin Alarms:  A bell was attached to the headstone with a chain that led down into the coffin to a ring that went around the finger of the deceased.  So, if you were to wake up and find yourself accidentally buried, you could pull on the chain and ring the bell.

A bird flying through the open window of a sick person's room or an individual's dreaming of something white may indicate that a death will soon take place.

If children under one year of age view a dead person, they will die.  (I remember when I was growing up, some folks were very hesitant to let their children attend funerals. This was not the case in my family.  I remember being just a tiny little girl and going to funerals.)

If people hear of a death on Monday, they will hear about another before the week is complete.

If someone sees a dead person's face in the mirror, that person will be the next to die.  (This is probably why mirrors were often covered in the home when corpses were prepared at home.)

If a photograph falls in a room with a corpse, the subject of the photograph will die.  (Well, last time I checked, we all have to die sometime!)


  1. Creepily fascinating! I've heard most of the ones you mentioned-but not all.

  2. I used to do a 30 minute historical program on death & dying in the 19th century. People seemed to be equally fascinated and repulsed by the program. But I never did have anyone walk out!


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