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.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- 1. Charon’s Obol in Ancient Greece
- 2. Dead Facing East
- 3. Cover Mirrors in Ireland
- 4. Stopping the Clocks in Europe
- 5. Celebrities Die in Threes
- 6. More Superstitions
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.
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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.
11. Leave House Feet First
In Europe and America during the 19th century, it was important to pay close attention to how the dead left their home. Because most people died at home, their bodies had to be removed and taken to the cemetery. When carrying the dead from the home, they were to be carried feet first according to superstition.
Why feet first? This was thought to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house. When the spirit looks back into the house, they could beckon another family member to follow them into the spirit realm. This is still practiced in some parts of the world today.
12. Watching Over the Dead
Though this sounds like something out of a horror film, it was common for there to be family or even cemetery professionals who watched over the dead prior to burial. Before modern medicine, it wasn’t always easy to determine if someone was truly dead. Because of this, there have been cases of people being buried alive.
By watching over the dead, families feel comfortable knowing the dead are truly dead before the burial. In the 19th century, being buried alive was a somewhat common occurrence. So common, in fact, that cemeteries installed bells to ring just in case someone happened to be buried alive.
13. Grave Flowers
If you attend a funeral or visit a cemetery, there are special etiquette rules you should follow. One of the most important, rooted in superstition, is to never take flowers from a grave. While taking anything from a cemetery is a bad idea, flowers are particularly unlucky.
Some believe that taking flowers from a grave will lead spirits to haunt you. Others say it’s just plain bad luck. Either way, it’s certainly in poor taste. Leave flowers where they are, especially in cemeteries.
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14. Feeling a Shiver
Though this might just be a schoolyard superstition, it still exists today. If you feel a random shiver or chills, this might be more than just the wind. According to superstition, feeling a random shiver means someone is walking across your grave.
This goes hand-in-hand with the idea that it’s bad luck to walk over someone’s grave. While this is basic cemetery etiquette, it’s also a good idea to be mindful of how walking over a grave could upset a spirit from beyond.
15. Whistling in Graveyard
Another important cemetery etiquette point to be mindful of is to never whistle in a graveyard. According to European and American superstition, whistling in a graveyard isn’t just a way to make quiet music. You might accidentally summon the devil or demons.
There are many superstitions around the devil and cemeteries. For example, lightning striking near a funeral means the soul was taken by the devil. Though just superstition, they’re based in a very real fear around mortality and death.
16. New Shoes to a Funeral
While wearing black attire to funerals has been around since Roman times, it was given new life in the Victorian era. The Victorians took death and mourning seriously, and they had a wide array of customs and superstitions around grieving the dead. One such idea was that you should never wear anything new to the funeral.
Wearing something new, especially shoes, was a sign of disrespect. It was said to bring great misfortune. Instead, grievers should wear clothing they already have. The Victorian elite always made sure they had appropriate mourning attire, since this was a large part of their culture.
17. Pregnancy and Memorials
Lastly, many cultures across the globe believe pregnant women should never attend memorial services. This superstition is common in Jewish, Christian, and even Native American traditions. Though not based in science or medicine, funerals are believed to bring bad luck to pregnant mothers-to-be.
While it’s unlikely the child will end up cursed or haunted by a spirit, many believe pregnant women should still steer clear of funerals. Because these can be difficult times filled with grief and stress, some doctors even advise against pregnant women attending funerals that they’ll find overly stressful.
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.