Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Superstitions and Portents of Death

Superstitions and Portents of Death

There are many superstitions with regard to death and burial. A superstition is defined as an irrational belief. However, most are the product of some long held belief, irrational though it might be.

A modern version of this would be the belief that celebrities die in threes. We've all heard it said. It may be rooted in an old English superstition that three funerals follow in quick succession.

A portent of death is an omen, something that has prophetic or threatening significance. Rain falling into an open grave, a picture falling off the wall, or opening an umbrella in the house. My mother always said the umbrella was common sense, so that no one would get their eye poked out, but it is a portent of death.

We have all heard of coins being placed on the eyes of the dead. When preparing the corpse for burial, if the eyes are found open it is thought to be a bad omen. The eyes were then closed and coins were placed on them.

Coins were chosen for two reasons. They prevented the staring of the corpse, as it was believed that the dead person was looking for someone to accompany him and you didn’t want him casting an eye on you. The coins were heavy enough to weigh the lids down. The second reason was the long held belief that a corpse needed money to pay their way into the next world.

I am doing research for an article on funeral and death superstitions and thought you might like to hear some of those I have encountered.

A Potpourri of Superstitions and Death Portents

If, in a row of beans, one should come up white instead of green, there will be a death in the family within a year.

If three people take part in the making-up of a bed, there is sure to be a death in the house within a year.

For a bird to fly in and out of a room by an open window predicts the death of the occupant of the house.

The flying or hovering by birds round a house and their resting on the window sill, or tapping against a pane portends death.

For a robin to tap the window of a room in which a sick person is lying portends the death of that person.

Church dust, brought to the bed of a dying person, shortens and eases a lingering and painful death.

After death all the windows and doors in the house must be opened in order that the soul of the dead may be released and fly away.

A dog howling is a sure sign of death.

If the sun shines brightly on the face of one of the attendants at a funeral, it marks him as the next to be laid in that churchyard.

Three funerals always follow one another in quick succession.

The south side of the churchyard is holiest, the north side being really unhallowed ground, fit only for the last resting-place of stillborn infants and suicides.

The first corpse laid in a new churchyard is claimed by the devil.

It is considered lucky for the dead person’s soul if rain falls during the funeral.

It is bad luck to hold a funeral on Sunday or on New Year’s Day.

It is bad luck for an odd number of mourners to attend the funeral. It is a sign someone will die soon.

Don’t count the vehicles in a funeral procession. That will be the amount of years you have to live.

He who meets a funeral is certain soon to die unless he bares his head.

Thunder at a funeral is the sound of the soul reaching heaven.

If someone in the house is sick, turning over a shoe can reverse the bad luck of a dog howling at night.

Covering your mouth while yawning prevents your spirit from leaving and the devil from entering.

The sound of a screech owl portends the death of some near relation before the year is out.

If you kill the owl you die yourself.

So, Graveyard Rabbits, watch out lest you lose a hind leg, because it is the hind leg of the Graveyard Rabbit that brings luck!


Blogger Linda Hughes Hiser said...

Have you come across, in your research, why dirt is thrown in on the coffin once it is lowered in the ground? or flowers thrown in?

April 1, 2009 at 5:12 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Yes, Linda, I have.

It seems that the last act of throwing dirt, flowers, pottery shards, straw, even seashells into the grave was a gesture of finality found to exist across all cultures and religions.

Concluding with this ritual shows communal as well as individual acknowledgment of the finality of the life. The deceased will never be heard from again - dust to dust.


April 1, 2009 at 7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the trivia. By the way, have you been able to uncover any superstitions/beliefs regarding burials performed at night? I can't find anything that deals with that topic; however, it doesn't seem to be a very common practice and I am thinking it might even be satanic?

September 3, 2009 at 8:52 PM  
Blogger Taion Takanuma said...

How do you get rid of bad luck after you accidently run over an owl?

March 5, 2010 at 10:05 AM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...


This begs the question - Were you driving or flying?

Answer: Bury it. (The luck with the owl.)


March 5, 2010 at 10:24 AM  

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