People all over the world experience special occasions — a new year, newborn babies, holidays, and more. By learning about shared experiences such as the way communities and cultures mourn, we can learn more about ourselves, where we come from, and how we respond to events such as death.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Throw Coins in Front of the Funeral Car from the Philippines
- Don't Drive Past a Funeral Procession
- Cover All Mirrors from the Jewish Culture
- Leave Food for the Dead from the Mexican Culture
- Rain During a Funeral
It’s interesting to take a quick look at some of these shared experiences and see how they influence our superstitions about death.
1. No Transporting the Dead in a Family Car
Several cultures believe that transporting the deceased in a family car leads to another death in the family soon after. This is one reason why it’s widely popular to hire a funeral home to transport the deceased in a hearse for the family.
In all practicality, a hearse has the room necessary to transport a casket. It’s also far simpler for the funeral home to arrange transportation and leave the family unburdened by the logistics of transporting their loved one.
2. Throw Coins in Front of the Funeral Car from the Philippines
People traditionally throw coins in front of the funeral car in the Philippines. This money is then used by the deceased as fare for the afterlife.
The concept of providing money and provisions for the deceased is a common one in many cultures, from Asia to Africa to Europe and beyond. In addition to coins, some cultures provide household goods, favorite items from their life on earth, and other trinkets that might be useful in the afterlife.
In Ancient Egypt, the deceased were even buried with their pets to assist them in the next life.
3. Don’t Drive Past a Funeral Procession
Of the many different death superstitions from around the world, this is one of the most practical.
The superstition is that if you drive past a funeral, you will bring bad luck to yourself and your family. However, for practical reasons, people the world over pause when a funeral procession passes by.
First of all, it’s the respectful thing to do. You also won’t risk cutting off part of the funeral procession (if traveling by vehicle) or pallbearers (if traveling by foot).
When funeral processions pass on the way to the burial, you often see the hearse followed by numerous cars. In some locations, if the procession is large enough, there will be a police escort before and behind to make sure the procession can stay together.
4. Cover All Mirrors from the Jewish Culture
Though many different cultures follow this rule, the Jewish culture is one that typically adheres to covering mirrors. Mirrors should be covered after a person’s death, during any pre-funeral observances, and even post-funeral traditions.
In Jewish culture, mirrors are covered so you can focus on mourning the deceased rather than looking at yourself.
In other cultures, mirrors are covered to prevent death from looking upon you or to prevent the spirit of the deceased from showing up in the mirror.
5. Leave Food for the Dead from Mexican Culture
In some cultures like Mexico, the entire country participates in a celebration of death on days like el Día de Los Muertos.
Family members leave food on the graves of the deceased. When someone dies, food is often a significant part of funeral celebrations. It is thought that the food left for the deceased helps provide nourishment when they come back from the spirit world.
6. Don’t Wear Red from the Philippines and China
In both the Philippines and in China, the color red is thought to be a color of good luck, joy, and happiness. The color red is so associated with good things, many brides in China wear this color on their wedding day.
It’s highly inappropriate to wear red to a funeral in either country.
7. Funeral and Burial Away from Cultivated Land from Africa
People respond to death in different cultures in a variety of ways. In some African cultures, funerals and burials must take place away from any cultivated land. If a person is buried on cultivated land, the culture believes it brings bad luck to the farmer and crops will no longer grow.
8. Rain During a Funeral
Depending on which country or culture you’re in, rain during a funeral can mean a variety of different things.
In the Appalachian Mountains, people thought that a funeral on a rainy day meant that the soul of the deceased would go to heaven. A thunderclap heard after the funeral and burial was also an indication of a soul that made its way safely to heaven. If, on the other hand, people heard a thunderclap during the funeral or burial, it meant the person ended up in a different location.
9. Place Coins on Eyelids from Ancient Greece
In ancient Greece, people thought the dead traveled to Hades and crossed the River Styx to reach the afterlife. Coins placed on the deceased’s eyes would come in handy to help them cross.
This technique was used in more modern times, not to help the deceased cross over a river, but in order to keep eyelids closed until rigor mortis set in.
10. A Hearse Shouldn’t Stop During the Funeral Procession
This superstition is another practiced by many cultures around the world. In the early days in the United States, people thought that if a hearse stopped on the way to a funeral, the house where the hearse stopped would experience a death in the family.
In some African cultures, individuals believed that if a hearse stops three times in a row on the way to the funeral, the family would experience one to three more deaths in a row.
11. Stand Near the Body During a Funeral from the United States
This is another superstition from the early days of the United States. Many people believed in the curative powers of a dead body, especially in the Appalachian area. For example, if you stood near the dead body during a funeral, you could be cured of a whole variety of illnesses, from toothaches to boils.
12. Never Travel the Same Way After the Funeral
Several cultures from Africa, some European cultures, and early Appalachian mountain dwellers all believed that funeral attendees shouldn’t travel the same path as the funeral procession to go home.
The common thought was that if you went home by following the same route, the spirit of the deceased would follow you all the way home and haunt your house.
13. Don’t Attend if Pregnant or Engaged from China
Several countries and cultures adhere to this superstition, but China is certainly known for it. If you are pregnant or engaged, you shouldn’t attend a funeral because it’s bad luck. In some cultures, attending a funeral while pregnant won’t just bring bad luck to you, it brings bad luck to the child as well.
14. Don’t Look at the Deceased, Especially if Pregnant
In several African and Asian traditions, you shouldn’t look at the deceased. This is especially true if you are pregnant. If you look at the deceased and the deceased “looks back” then you will have bad luck. If you are pregnant, both you and your baby will have bad luck.
15. Wear Gloves if a Pallbearer from Victorian-Era England
In Victorian England, it was thought that touching the casket would allow the spirit of the deceased to enter into you. Pallbearers began to wear gloves — a tradition that has continued to this day. Though today gloves are ornamental, they got their beginning way back in Victorian-era England.
16. Don’t Yawn Without Covering Your Mouth from Victorian-Era England
Though this custom can be traced back to England during the reign of Queen Victoria, it holds true in several other countries and cultures as well.
Did you think that covering your mouth when you yawn is a polite thing to do? This custom got its start specifically at funerals. It was thought that the spirit of the deceased would enter into the body of the person who yawned.
To prevent this from occurring, people began to cover their mouths at funerals and the practice was eventually carried over into everyday life.
Funeral Superstitions Become Tradition
Many funeral superstitions started as beliefs about the deceased and the afterlife. Today, these same superstitions have morphed into traditions. Were you surprised to find out about the origins of some of these common funeral superstitions?
- Galvez, Jane. “30 Superstitions Filipinos Practice During Funerals.” Lifestyle, Manillenials, 23 October 2014. manillenials.com/filipino-superstitions-funerals-pamahiin-sa-patay/
- Asante, Molefi, and Mazama, Ama. “Encyclopedia of African Religion Volume 1.” Sage Publications, London, 2009. books.google.com/books?id=B667ATiedQkC&pg=PT307&dq=African+burial+rites&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CFAQ6AEwCWoVChMIyOz5v8nUyAIVixseCh3diQ9I#v=onepage&q=African%20burial%20rites&f=false
- Stewart, Judy. "Death and Burial in the Mountains: Superstitions, Customs, Practices Superstitions II." Appalachian Heritage, vol. 1 no. 4, 1973, p. 22-24. Project MUSE. muse.jhu.edu/article/441965/pdf
- Stubb, Mary Ellen. “Cemetery Folklore – the Lighter Side of the Grave.” Missoula Cemetery, Document Center, 2020. ci.missoula.mt.us/DocumentCenter/View/8206/Cemetery-Folklore?bidId=