When it comes to funeral planning, just about every culture and every family has their own list of traditions. Whether the traditions are as lighthearted as everyone wearing the color red in honor of the deceased’s favorite color or as somber as observing a strict period of mourning, most traditions, taboos, and superstitions have their roots in time-honored cultural practices.
Here are a few funeral superstitions that have been part of the Western culture for centuries:
• Pall bearers traditionally wear gloves when they carry a casket. This practice stems from a fear that directly touching the casket could allow the spirit of the deceased to enter the body.
• Leaving funeral flowers on the grave soon after and in the months following death isn’t just for looks—in the past, people believed that flowers would only grow over the bodies of those who had lived a good life.
• Although many people approve of wearing the color black to funerals, it was once believed that burying a person in black might make them more likely to come back and haunt the family.
• Covering mirrors with dark cloth right after death occurred in Victorian time was done to protect those living in the house from the spirit of the deceased.
• Many families still stop the primary clock in the house upon the death of a loved one. The clock isn’t restarted until after all the burial arrangements have been carried out—an indication that life, like time, will move on.
• The old childhood game of holding your breath when passing by or through a cemetery was first started so that people could avoid “breathing in” the souls of the deceased.
• Rain and thunder during a funeral is not only okay—it’s actually great news. According to Victorian superstitions, this means that the deceased is on his or her way to heaven.
• An additional Victorian custom called for the deceased to be carried out of the body feet first as a way to prevent the spirit from looking back and beckoning to others to follow him or her into death.
• Even more extreme measures may have been taken by early English Saxons, who cut the feet off of bodies to prevent them from being able to walk back to life.
• The burial arrangements we all know and accept might also have their roots in funeral superstitions; headstones were first used as away to keep the ghost of the deceased from rising back to the world of the living.
• The sounds of the modern funeral are also tied to early superstitions. Practices like keening, wailing, tolling funeral bells, and even firing military guns could be part of a belief that scaring away the spirits was necessary to protect the living.
Other customs and superstitions, like burying the body oriented in a specific direction or using specialized materials as a shroud, are still going strong today. In most cases, these are part of a religious orientation and tradition, rather than any firm beliefs about what the spirit world may or may not be able to accomplish from the grave.
Whether you take these funeral superstitions with a laugh or with a shiver, they all demonstrate one thing—when it comes to funeral planning, people have been putting a lot of thought, love, and even fear into for thousands of years.