It’s not always easy to talk about death. For many people across the globe, it’s helpful to rely on folk traditions, stories, and superstitions for answers about what comes after. This is one of the many ways to understand death in different cultures.
Though some of these might not make sense in your own culture, it’s important to recognize how they represent the range of cultural diversity since the dawn of time. If there’s one thing all humans have in common, it’s finding answers for death, the afterlife, and everything in between. Let’s break down the curtains of death around the globe by examining these death superstitions from around the world.
1. Charon’s Obol in Ancient Greece
Have you ever heard of putting coins on the eyes of the dead? This dates back to the story of Charon’s Obol. This was an Ancient Greek myth surrounding the underworld. When people died in Ancient Greece, their families left coins for Charon, the ferry conductor across the river to the afterlife.
Charon’s obol was a superstition that allowed families to “pay” for safe passage to the underworld. These coins have been found in numerous graves from Ancient Greece, but it doesn’t end here. In recent years, placing coins on the eyes of the dead is a way to weigh down eyelids, which tend to rise after death. This callback to an ancient superstition reminds us that our death rites continue through the ages, even if the meanings shift over time.
2. Dead Facing East
In the western world, there’s one superstition that lies in plain sight. Most bodies in graveyards are buried facing east, towards the rising sun. This stems from the belief that the dead should have the ability to see the new world rise each day.
This is why most graveyards are organized on an east-west grid. While it’s not a perfect science, this is a superstition that still plays into modern burial customs. Additionally, this is why people are buried on their backs. These little details are how we respect the dead.
3. Cover Mirrors in Ireland
An Irish superstition about the dead involves covering all of the mirrors in the home. During an Irish wake, families invite people to join them at their home to say goodbye to the deceased. The body is cleaned and displayed to offer a final farewell.
Why are the mirrors covered? According to folk legend, mirrors form gateways to other worlds. The soul travels through these mirrors if you’re not careful. Because the family wants the soul of the deceased to travel to Heaven, the mirrors are turned towards the wall to allow the spirit to pass without interruption.
4. Stopping the Clocks in Europe
Another example of rituals surrounding the dead is the practice of stopping all the clocks in the home at the time of death. In many parts of Europe, this tradition dates back to ancient times. This was done symbolically. For the deceased, time was officially stopped.
By stopping the clocks in the home, the family paid respects to the deceased. In Victorian times, this also came to be a symbol of luck for the family.
Not stopping the clock in the room of a deceased person would bring bad luck upon the entire family. This also served a practical purpose in providing the coroner with the time of death.
5. Celebrities Die in Threes
This is one many people have likely heard today. There’s a common superstition that celebrities always die in groups of 3. The most famous example of this is the urban myth surrounding the death of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson 3 days in a row.
Luckily, this has been disproven by the New York Times, who went through their archives to look for any similar instances. However, this doesn’t stop people from worrying when a beloved celebrity passes away.
6. Day of the Dead in Mexico
In Mexico, there are a lot of superstitions around Day of the Dead. Day of the Dead begins on October 31, also known as All Hallows Eve. This is the night when the boundaries between the living and dead grow thin. Deceased loved ones cross over into the world of the living to visit with families and partake in the celebration.
To honor their dead ancestors, Mexicans leave offerings on shrines to their loved ones. They also flock to graveyards, performing rituals, feasting, and enjoying time with friends and family. By taking part in the festivities, they ensure their ancestors are happily looking over them.
7. Don’t Drive Past a Funeral Procession
If you’re driving along and come across a funeral procession, it’s common etiquette to pull over and let them pass. There are a lot of superstitions revolving around the process of transporting bodies from the funeral service to the gravesite.
First, you risk bad luck if you don’t pull over for a hearse and a funeral procession. Second, you should never drive with a deceased family member in your own car. This is why funeral homes offer their own services. Plus, it’s simply more practical to leave this to the professionals.
8. Tucking Your Thumbs in Japan
In Japan, never walk past a cemetery without tucking in your thumbs. The Japanese word for “thumb” also means: ”parent finger.” This means that protecting your thumb is a way to protect your parents.
In Japan, it’s believed that you risk your parent’s death if you fail to tuck your thumbs within your hand while walking past or through a cemetery. This gives all new meaning to the phrase mind your thumbs!
9. Skip 4 in China
It’s no surprise that some cultures have superstitions around numbers as well as things. In the west, there’s a lot of superstition around the number 13, for example, as a sign of bad luck. In China, a similar belief is held about the number 4.
The Chinese word for death is eerily similar to the number 4, leading many people to avoid it altogether out of fear. Since speaking about death is a taboo topic in China, it’s unlikely you’ll see the number 4 anywhere. It’s skipped on license plates, floor numbers, and most public conversations.
10. Yellow Flowers in Russia
Flowers are an important part of Russian culture, but not all flowers are alike. Like numbers, there are a lot of different meanings taken from different flowers. Black is typically seen as a sign of bad luck, and white is used for mourning.
Yellow flowers have an unexpected meaning. Though they’re so vibrant in color, they’re associated with infidelity and even death. Gifting yellow flowers is socially unacceptable, and they’re a sign that death might be close.
From Superstitions Come Meaning
Do you recognize any of these superstitions above? While it’s easy to misinterpret beliefs from other parts of the world, it’s important to recognize our own right here at home. Humans have used superstitions and tales to make sense of the world around them since the dawn of time.
While yellow flowers and facing west might not have as much meaning as people think, there’s no denying that these concepts bring families peace in some way. Having shared beliefs to fall back on as a culture ties people together. When it comes to death and everything after, togetherness means everything. How do you honor the dead with your beliefs?
- Flippen, Alan. “No, Celebrity Deaths Do Not Come in Threes.” The New York Times. 2014. NYtimes.com.
- “Old Tradition: Stopping Clocks After a Loved One Dies.” Appalachian Magazine. 18 March 2018. AppalachianMagazine.com.
- Skurie, Jaclyn. “Superstitious Numbers Around the World.” National Geographic. 14 September 2013. NationalGeographic.com.