Different cultures interpret death, dying, and the afterlife in unique ways. Not only does this give you a glimpse into a different culture’s beliefs, but it also shows just how much we can learn from each other when it comes to attitudes from beyond the grave.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Standing on Graves
- Open Graves
- Holding Your Breath
- Coins on the Eyes of the Dead
- Flowers on the Grave
- Pregnant Women Should Avoid Cemeteries
- Prevent the Dead from Rising
- Don’t Point at Graveyards
- Tuck Your Thumbs
- Counting Procession Cars
Throughout the world, cultures have their own ideas and superstitions about where they lay the dead to rest. Take a trip around the world throughout this guide to explore some of the most fascinating cemetery superstitions from around the world. Which do you believe?
1. Standing on Graves
A common superstition in North American and England says that it’s bad luck to stand on someone’s grave. You might even have heard the phrase “Someone just walked over my grave” after someone felt an unexplained chill or feeling of dread.
This superstition stems from the discomfort of standing on someone’s grave. In the Victorian era, it was very common to stumble onto graves whenever a new construction project started since most burials took place on private property in centuries past. Today, people still refuse to walk on or near graves for fear of disrupting the dead.
2. Open Graves
Another superstition in North America and England: Graves shouldn’t stay open overnight. In the past, people thought another death would come to the community. This might end up as just a practical warning since an open grave offers a danger to those walking nearby.
Oddly enough, walking by an open grave was also seen as a way to cure common health problems. Bearing near or even inside an open grave was thought to cure illnesses like toothaches, boils, and incontinence.
3. Holding Your Breath
A common superstition across the western world involves holding your breath when you pass a cemetery. If you don’t, you risk "breathing in the soul" of someone who died. A lot of conflicting origin stories occur with this superstition related to God breathing life into Adam from the Bible.
Throughout human history, breath has long been associated with life and spirits. To this day, people still hold their breaths when passing a cemetery out of fear that they’ll take on the soul of someone who recently passed. When it comes to death superstitions, this one can seem rather spooky.
4. Coins on the Eyes of the Dead
In Ancient Greece and Rome, it was common to place coins on the eyes or mouths of the dead. This was known as Charon’s Obol, and it was thought to be a gold coin for the ferryman Charon.
In mythology, Charon is the son of Erebus and Nyx. His duty was only to ferry the souls of the dead over the Rivers Styx and Archeron. He received the coin as payment, and families believed their loved one’s soul wouldn’t find rest without it.
This superstition also had a practical purpose. Because the eyes of the dead often open, coins were a practical way to weigh down the eyelids until rigor mortis set in. This practice continued through the 19th century.
5. Flowers on the Grave
Regardless of whether the burial took place in a public or private cemetery, pay close attention to the flowers on a grave in North America or Europe. If wildflowers appeared naturally, the deceased was a good person who went to heaven. On the other hand, a dusty grave with weeds growing went to hell.
Today, most people have abandoned this superstition about the afterlife based on the growth around the grave. Still, people place both real and artificial flowers as a sign of respect and as a symbol of purity.
6. Pregnant Women Should Avoid Cemeteries
In many parts of the world, pregnant women should not attend funerals or visit a cemetery. This is a common funeral superstition in many different religions and cultures. This belief is especially prevalent today in Asia, and many still believe it today.
Some argue that being around death could cause a stillborn birth, while others say vengeful spirits will take the baby away. The biggest concern isn’t around spirits or death at all, but about the wellbeing of the mother who might be under too much emotional stress.
While being at a funeral or cemetery won’t necessarily cause any adverse effects, the Makati Medical Center in the Philippines argues that the body can release the stress hormone cortisol during an emotionally stressful event like a funeral. This hormone affects the baby as well and could alter fetal metabolism. When in doubt, talk to your doctor about whether to attend a funeral or graveside service.
7. Prevent the Dead from Rising
Headstones mark the space where someone is buried but they had a dual purpose according to one European superstition. In the 1500s, these slabs of stone weren’t just a way to mark graves. They were laid to prevent the deceased from getting up and walking away.
In Christianity, the faithful will rise when Gabriel blows the trumpet. However, Europeans in the 1500s were worried Christians would do this too soon. According to popular superstition at the time, headstones were placed at the feet to keep them from getting up.
You may even hear of extreme accounts of the dead’s feet being cut off entirely to ensure they couldn’t walk from the burial space until the Resurrection. Luckily, this developed into mortsafes in the 1770s, which also prevented grave robbers from stealing belongings and bodies. Today, headstones go at the head of the grave, and cemetery sextons prevent grave robbers.
8. Don’t Point at Graveyards
In many cultures, graves are sacred spaces, and they’re often thought of as a place where spirits reside.
In Hawaii, don’t ever point at a graveyard or tombstones. If you do, locals believe that a spirit will latch onto you. Not only that, but they’ll never let go, and you’ll be stuck with this stray spirit for the rest of your life.
9. Tuck Your Thumbs
Hand gestures across the world vary widely, so it’s always important to proceed with caution before doing a hand motion that’s normal in your part of the world. In Japan, there’s a connection between the word “thumb” and the word “death.” They sound very similar, and thumb literally translates to “parent finger.”
Because of this tricky double meaning, the Japanese tuck their thumbs whenever they enter a cemetery. This is to protect one’s parents from an untimely early death. This practice still continues today, and the Japanese don't talk openly about death or “invite” it in any way.
10. Counting Procession Cars
If you’ve ever attended or passed by a funeral procession on the way to a cemetery, you might have been tempted to count the number of cars included. According to North American superstition, counting the number of cars could be a risky endeavor.
The number of cars supposedly equals the number of days you have left to live. In many parts of the world, passing a funeral procession may offer bad luck, though following funeral procession etiquette wards off this bad energy.
Honor the Dead Without Worry
These superstitions above might have you a bit nervous the next time you approach a cemetery but have no fear. While based on local traditions, religion, and understanding of the dead, they’re nothing but old tales told to ease some of the fear around death and dying.
In the past, death occurred more often thanks to famine, disease, war, and poor medical advancements. These beliefs were one of the many ways people understood the role of death and the afterlife, so take them as a learning experience on your next trip through a cemetery.
- “6 Pregnancy Superstitions Debunked.” Makati Medical Center. 24 September 2019. MakatiMed.net.ph.
- “Cemetery Folklore — The Lighter Side of the Grave.” The University of Montana at Missoula. CI.Missoula.MT.US.
- “Cemetery Superstitions: Am I Standing On Someone?” Laurel Hill Cemetery. 13 April 2018. LaurelHillCemetery.blog.
- Dekneef, Matthew. “Your must-know list of Hawaii’s diverse local superstitions.” Hawaii Magazine. 29 October 2015. HawaiiMagazine.com.
- Mulvania, Andrew. ”18 Superstitions from Around the World.” Google Arts and Culture. ArtsandCulture.Google.com.
- “Origins of Popular Superstitions.” Sanguinarius. Sanguinarius.org.
- Reynolds, Andrew. “Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs.” Oxford University Press: 2009. Books.Google.com.