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13 Superstitions About Death and Dying

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Updated November 02, 2013

While people generally view superstitions with mild amusement these days, it is amazing how many of us still knock on wood to avoid tempting fate, cross our fingers for luck, or avoid walking beneath a ladder "just in case." Here are 13 superstitions concerning death and dying that persist today, and possible explanations of their origins. You may take them as seriously (or not) as you wish!

1. Birds are Bad Omens

Owl & Gravestone
Photo © Steve Allen/Getty Images
Because birds can easily move between earth and sky, humans have long viewed our feathered friends as a link between the temporal and spiritual worlds. Not surprisingly, a large number of superstitions center on birds as harbingers of death. A bird flying into a home through the door or a window, and possibly even lading on the back of a chair, is considered an omen of death for someone in the household. Similarly, a bird sitting on a windowsill looking in, or tapping its beak against the glass, is an ominous sign. Seeing an owl during the day, or hearing it hoot at any time, is another portent of death.

2. Celebrities Die in Threes

This one has many modern adherents because it is impossible to disprove. Who qualifies as a celebrity? People die all the time so it's rarely difficult to find somebody even slightly well known to round out a threesome. And how quickly must a trio die? Within days of each other? Months? Regardless, the origin of the modern superstition might have arisen from an old English folk belief that three funerals tended to occur in rapid succession. Why that one arose, however, has been lost to posterity.

3. Pregnant Women Should Avoid Funerals

Numerous cultures harbor this folk belief, and, even today, Internet message boards and forums bear many messages from expectant mothers wondering if there is any truth to this old wives' tale. Possible explanations range from fear that the spirit of the dead will possess the unborn child to concerns that the highly emotional nature of a funeral could cause a miscarriage.

Another superstition associated with this one is that, if a pregnant woman does decide to attend a funeral, she should avoid looking at the deceased. Again, the underlying fear is that a spirit will somehow induce her unborn child to enter the land of the dead.

4. Hold Your Breath When Passing a Cemetery

Similar to the superstition that we should cover our mouths when yawning to prevent our spirit from leaving our body, holding your breath when passing a cemetery supposedly prevents the spirits of the dead from entering you. (Of course the real trick is to hold your breath and avoid stepping on any cracks in the sidewalk!)

5. "Three on a Match" is Bad Luck

Cigarette smokers might be familiar with this superstition, which states that three people should never light up from the same match or else one of them will die. The possible origin of this belief could date back to the soldiers fighting in the Crimean War in the 1850s: The soldier striking the match alerted the enemy to his presence in the dark; the second soldier lighting his cigarette gave the enemy time to aim; and the third soldier received the fatal bullet.

6. Thunder After a Funeral Means the Deceased Entered Heaven

The basis for this superstition could rest in a Bible verse (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17), which says that an archangel will blow a mighty horn to wake the dead and announce the return of Christ at the Last Judgment. Interestingly, another folk belief states that a thunderstorm during a funeral means the deceased will head to a somewhat warmer place. Presumably, the difference hinges on fully conducting the rites of Christian burial or not.

7. Flowers Only Grow on the Graves of the Good

If the deceased led a pure life, flowers grow over the grave, signifying his or her entrance into Heaven. But a grave covered with weeds indicates that the individual was evil. The origin of this superstition has been lost through time, but people have always associated flowers with beauty, purity, grace, etc., and their absence as a sign of pestilence, despair, and so on.

8. Bury the Dead With Their Heads Pointing West

You've probably never noticed, but you'd be surprised how many cemeteries bury the dead so their heads point west, their feet east. Sunrise has long symbolized birth or renewal, while sunsets (and even Oz's Wicked Witch of the West) symbolize evil and death. Not surprisingly, therefore, Christian tradition holds that the Last Judgment will commence from the east, and many cemeteries traditionally bury the dead so that they "look" eastward in anticipation.

9. Pallbearers Must Wear Gloves

This superstition arose during the highly fashion-conscious Victorian era, but it persists even today in various areas. According to this folk belief, those carrying a casket to a grave must wear gloves lest the spirit of the deceased enter their body through direct contact. While the specific origin of this one is unknown, it remains yet another example of the "spirit fear" once associated by the living with the dead.

10. Remove a Corpse From a House Feet-first

Considered "windows to the soul," many superstitions involve the eyes of the deceased, such as placing coins on the eyelids of the dead. Removing a body feet-first from the home, which dates back to Victorian England, arose from the fear that the departed would "look back" into the house during removal to beckon someone else to follow him or her into death.

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