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10 Superstitions Surrounding Memorial Services, Death & Dying

by J. Malec

Superstitions around memorial services.

Photo: Bird at window

Human beings are innately superstitious creatures. We interact with the world in an almost mystical cloud of personal and cultural mythology. This filter lends color and meaning to circumstances beyond our control, mercifully making sense out of it all.

In an earlier blog “The Good Death,” we talked about contemporary practices around death. There is renewed vision around the experience of mortality and how that informs our attitude toward daily life. But that wasn’t always so.

5 Superstitions About Funerals & Memorial Services

  1. Black must be worn, but nothing new, especially shoes. Wearing black in mourning goes back to ancient Roman times. It’s likely that the Victorian elite ritualized it. Wearing new shoes to a memorial, in particular, would bring great misfortune.
  2. Pregnant women should not attend memorial services. This has its roots in many cultures, from ancient Jewish and Christian traditions to the Iroquois Nation. The belief holds that if a pregnant woman views the deceased, her baby may be lost to miscarriage or other misfortune. Another belief in support of this superstition is that the spirit of the departed would possess the developing fetus.
  3. Pallbearers should wear gloves. This practice originated during the Victorian era. It is still observed in many countries, and it has been incorporated into the fabric of our funeral practices. The gloves supposedly prevent the spirit of the deceased from entering the bodies of the living through direct contact.
  4. Passing a funeral procession or counting the cars in it will bring your own death sooner. In the case of counting cars, it is said that the number of cars will equal the number of days you have left to live. Passing a procession is both bad luck and hastens death, but may be averted by touching a button on clothing.
  5. Burying the dead in a suit of clothes belonging to a living person will cause the suit’s owner to perish. Once the clothes decay, the owner supposedly will fall ill and die.

Most of these superstitions originated before the advent of cremation in the West. For a person choosing to be memorialized in a cremation urn, these are likely non-issues.

5 Superstitions About Death & Dying

  1. Death comes in threes. This concept has innumerable roots throughout history, but is most commonly understood in reference to celebrity deaths today. In particular, the number three shows up throughout American culture in names (first, middle, last), phrases (“it’s as easy as one-two-three”), in folklore and even in rhymes (tic-tac-toe, three in a row). The idea that bad things happen in threes is apparently rooted in an old English wives’ tale that three funerals follow in quick succession.
  2. Mirrors should be covered in the home where a death has occurred. This is rooted in an ancient Jewish custom. The practice took on new meaning in the Victorian era when Spiritism was fashionable. The intent was to prevent the spirit of the deceased from becoming trapped in the glass forever and not able to begin his or her afterlife. In general the mirrors are uncovered after a funeral.
  3. Clocks should be stopped in the room where a death has occurred. Many beliefs surround this idea. If time continued, this invited the spirit to live on in the home and haunt forever. A more logical explanation is that stopping a clock, especially in remote areas, would record the time of death. Another belief is that bad luck would descend on the home if a clock wasn’t stopped. The clock wasn’t restarted until after memorial arrangements had been carried out, to show that life would go on.
  4. Birds at the window are a portent of death. A few birds that may be taken as omens of death to come are a robin tapping at the window, birds hovering around a house or landing on the windowsill, or a bird flying out an open window.
  5. To ward off death, toss spilled salt over your left shoulder. This is thought to stem from the historical value of salt, which was once a great commodity. It is also a reference to Judas spilling salt at the Last Supper. Tossing it over the shoulder ‘blinds’ the devil sitting on our left shoulder.

Thankfully, we need not fear these historical superstitions. We are free to create our own rituals and beliefs that serve our needs today. Perhaps they will be uplifting in nature. Take for example the birds serving as a bad omen – instead, it is widely understood in many Native American traditions that an eagle bears the spirit upward. And think of the symbolism of the dove alighting to pass matter into spirit.

It is often challenging to grasp the permanence of loss when a loved one passes on. Our planning guide, “Memorial Urn and Site Options,” provides concrete considerations when cremation has been chosen to memorialize a loved one.  Death and memorial arrangements carry a great deal of superstition. Because passing on is shrouded in mystery, most people possess an imperative to clothe losses in stories that help create order from uncertainty. This is simply our hardwiring. And though the superstitions change throughout the years, the need for them does not.

J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.

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