Many of us fear death. We’ve been taught from a young age that death is the end and that sense of finality is what causes anxiety. But remember, death is part of the cycle. It is not the end. Whatever you might believe about death and the afterlife, we all know how big of an event it is. There’s a mourning process, a wake or viewing, and a funeral, burial, or cremation. Here we examine old school American omens of death, as well as funeral superstitions, traditions and lore.
Omens and signs come to us in all shapes and sizes. 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 shaped like a dollar sign, indicating money is coming. Sometimes we receive omens of death to warn us before it happens. Keep in mind, what might be an omen of death in one culture is a sign of good luck in other cultures.
Because of the uncertainty of an afterlife, traditions and superstitions about death and funerals have been around for ages. The concept of a soul permeates every religion in the world, and therefore loved ones of a deceased individual feel its their duty to help aid the soul to the afterlife. Often families will pass down death and funeral customs to their descendants and so on. Many of the American funeral traditions come from Europe or Africa, brought here by immigrants and the enslaved over the last four centuries.
A wake is a watchful vigil over the deceased a day or so after the person dies. Traditionally, family comes to the deceased’s home and watches over the body together. The wake is an old Celtic tradition from Europe. There is sometimes food, drinks, and partying to celebrate the deceased’s life. Originally, the “wake” was a way to watch over the newly deceased’s body so that the soul didn’t stick around or an evil spirit wouldn’t 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. As sometimes people were pronounced dead but weren’t truly dead yet.
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 a funeral home. And the body is sent for funerary arrangements soon after death.
Covering the mirrors in a home was an old custom that some folks still carry on. In Fried Green Tomatoes, following death, 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 religious homes. The modern theory behind this old tradition is to protect the mourners from seeing themselves in the mirrors. Older beliefs suggest mirrors confused the newly-departed soul and could trap it on this plane. Others maintain the death of a person attracts good and evil spirits. If the mirrors are covered, the mourners won’t see the spirits.
Clocks play a part in some households as well: stopping the clocks after a death. Cover the clocks 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. 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 swiftly leave the earthly plane. Sources online say this is an old Danish tradition, while others argue it’s worldwide. If a clock stopped on its own in the house, it was an omen of death.
Ever wonder why there’s flowers at a funeral? Most people might think flowers are simply showing care for the deceased, but there’s a grisly past. In Victorian times, the deceased sometimes had to wait a few days before being picked up by the local undertaker. To combat any overpowering odors, flowers were placed over and all around the body. For fresh flowers to be brought to the ailing, it was an imminent omen of death.
Sin eaters were people who supposedly had the power to “eat the sins” of a dying or deceased person. If one saw a sin-eater walking down the road, this was an omen of death. The sin-eater’s origins aren’t clear, as the creepy tradition pops up across the globe. But it was once a common English funerary practice. Sin-eaters were common in the deep south (U.S.) as late as the 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 “absorbed” the deceased’s sins, and then the sin-eater consumed the sin. Thereby freeing the deceased from their transgressions.
The phrases “saved by the bell” and “dead-ringer” have origins in the graveyard. Sometimes people were buried alive. And when their coffins were opened, scratch marks covered the coffin’s interior. Tying a bell to a rope that was connected to the inside of the casket ensured the buried person could signal they were still alive.
Alvin Schwartz retold a terrifying ghost story in his books “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark”. It’s called “Cold As Clay”. A farmhand 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 animated by evil spirits fueled the “vampire hunt”. Mercy Brown was a young lady who died of consumption, and whose body was exhumed. Her father was convinced she was one of the living dead feeding on his last child. They removed Mercy’s heart and burned it. Then fed the ashes to the dying child to heal him and ward off Mercy the vampire. Needless to say, the boy died anyway.
Vikings. Valhalla. Thor and Odin. I’ll bet you are at least partially familiar with these …August 30, 2023