Signs and Portents of Death—From the Journal of Folk Lore 1889
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While the corpse is in the house, the looking-glass must be turned toward the wall; otherwise, whoever looks into the mirror will die within a year. This custom is said to be most common among Irish Catholics, but is not confined to these (Baldwinsville, N. Y.).
The clock should be stopped at the time of death, as its running will bring ill luck (Baldwinsville, N. Y.).
Stop the clock at the time of death (New Hampshire). The same custom is noted in Great Britain and Germany. The object, no doubt, is not merely symbolic, as might at first appear, but to limit the power of death by introducing a new period of time.
To keep the corpse in the house over Sunday will bring death in the family before the year is out (South Framingham, Mass.).
If the grave is left open over Sunday another death will occur before the Sunday following (Boxford, Mass.).
In Switzerland, if a grave is left open over Sunday, it is said that within four weeks one of the village will die.
If rain falls into an open grave, another burial in the same cemetery will occur within three days (West New York). If rain falls on a new-made grave there will be another death in the family within the year (Baldwinsville, N. Y.; Poland, Me.). A common saying in England is "Happy the corpse that the rain falls on." Thus, it is said that if rain falls at the time of the funeral it is a sign that the dead man has gone to heaven (Boston, Mass.). The method of conception is the same as that apparent in the two superstitions above enumerated, but the sign is interpreted in a different manner.
If a hearse is drawn by two white horses, death in the neighborhood will occur within a month (Central Maine). If a white horse draws the hearse, another death will soon follow (Poland, Me.). In Bohemia, also, white horses are regarded as warnings of death, though to have a white horse in the stable is also said to bring good luck. To dream of a white horse is a sign of death, both in the latter country and in England. In Sussex white animals mysteriously appearing at night, are said to be death warnings. In the lore of the English peasantry, white horses play an important part, and are variously considered as of good and evil portent, a fact which is plausibly accounted for on the ground that these beliefs are inherited from a time when pagan deities were considered to ride on white horses. Thus in Shropshire St. Milburga so rides, as St. Walburga does in the Tyrol. Tacitus mentions the spotless white horses reared in sacred groves by the Germans of his own day, from whose neighing auguries were taken. In Bohemia death is considered as a white woman (survival of the death goddess Morana), whose apparition is a sign of death to the seer. This explains why, in England and Germany, seeing a white woman is of fatal augury. The original idea doubtless is that the goddess appears to and selects those whose society she desires. That she should be clad in white indicates her deity; for white, as the color of light, is emblematic of heaven, according to the considerations. It would seem that the presage of a white horse may rest upon the character of such animal as emblematic of the divine being who summons a mortal to the other world. Should this be really the case, much philosophy and much history would be embodied in a superstition apparent frivolous. It may, however, be thought that there is a simpler interpretation of these omens, namely their connection with the custom of robing the dead in white. Thus Artemidorus, in a work on the interpretation of dreams, written in Rome in the second century, considers that to a sick man a dream of white garments is ominous of death, "because the dead are buried in white raiment; but black clothes signify recovery, because not the dead, but mourners use such apparel. This comes very near the notion of the Sussex peasant above related. In the opinion of the writer, it would be a mistake to exclude the higher conceptions already referred to from the associations suggested by white. But the symbolism of color is too extensive a theme to be now considered.
It may be remarked that it is not only in the North of Europe that the messenger of death is represented as riding. Readers will remember that the horse of death is mentioned in Revelation. In Greek symbolism the deceased person is often represented as riding forth on his journey, conducted by a genius. A modern Greek ballad changes Charon, the ferryman, to Charos, the horseman; the young walk before him, the old behind, young babes are carried on his saddle. It is unlucky to pass through a funeral, either between the carriages or the files of mourners on foot (Boston, Mass.). This is a general superstition. The custom, which has become instinctive with many persons, is usually set down to the score of decency and propriety. If any one comes to a funeral after the procession starts, another death will occur in the same house (Ohio). Whoever counts the carriages at a passing funeral will die within the year (Peabody, Mass.). The corpse must not pass twice over any part of the same road (Baldwinsville, N. Y.). The funeral procession must not cross a river (Baldwinsville, N. Y.). I was first led to notice the superstition about crossing a river from having to attend funerals on the south side, when they would otherwise have been held on the north side. This is losing ground owing to the frequency of crossing to reach the cemetery, but I had an instance only last spring (W. M. B.).
It is unlucky, in a funeral, for those present to repass the house where death has occurred (Baldwinsville, N. Y.). At a funeral, entering a church before the mourners means death to some of the entering party (Boston, Mass.). If one dies, and no rigor mortis ensues, it indicates a speedy second death in the family. The superstition prevails in Great Britain and on the continent of Europe.
The person on whom the eyes of a dying person last rest will be the first to die (Boston, Mass.). This seems to be a form of a widely-prevalent superstition that if the eyes of the dying person open of their own accord one of his relatives will soon follow. It is probable that the importance, from time immemorial, attached to the ceremony of closing the eyes of the dead has for its foundation not merely the natural propriety of a decent usage, but also a belief kindred to the above.
The last name a dying person calls is the next to follow (New Hampshire). If three persons look at the same time into a mirror one will die within a year (Peabody, Mass.; New Hampshire).
To break a looking-glass is a death sign, or of bad luck for seven years. This is quite a general belief. Domestic servants, and particularly superstitious persons, are often thrown into a panic by accidents of this sort (Niagara Falls, Ont.). In Clun Forest (as in Scotland) such a breakage is said to be a death token. In North Shropshire it means seven years' trouble, to which, in Cornwall, is added, but no want. It adds to the ill luck to preserve the broken pieces. At Wellington any one who breaks a looking glass will never have any luck till he has broken two more—a rule, however, which seems to apply to all breakages. "When I have broken three I shall have finished." The folk say, "The third time pays for all." In Switzerland, when a mirror breaks, he is said to die who looked in last. In Bohemia it means seven years' distress.
If, during sickness, a pair of shears be dropped in such a manner that the point sticks into the floor, it indicates the death of the sick person (Central New York). In Greece if a pair of scissors is left gaping on a table, it is said that the Archangel Michael's mouth is open, ready to take the soul of some member of the family.
To dance on the ground indicates disaster or death within a year (Boxford, Mass.). As such dancing has been a universal custom, it seems fair to conclude that this superstition is local and modern; the informant, however, an elderly person, avers that she has always heard it so said. If thirteen sit at a table the one who rises first will not live through the year (Somerville, Mass.). If thirteen sit at table, the last one who sits down will not die that year (Brookline, Mass.). This superstition is universal in Europe. In Germany the victim is variously said to be the youngest, the last who sits down, the one who sits under the mirror, the first to eat or arise, the one who seems sad and downcast. In Tyrol, byway of exception, the augury extends only to ill luck. In one Bohemian town it is held to be true only for a Christmas festivity, and the fate is extended to all over the number of twelve. In a recent newspaper an account was given of a dinner in the interior of the State of New York, where the omen was supposed to be averted by dividing
the guests among two tables.
In the Netherlands it is said that the one who sits under the beam is a traitor: a statement which points to the Paschal Supper as the origin of the belief; and this is certainly probable, while other explanations are not worth citing. A dishcloth hung on a door-knob is a sign of death in a family (Deerfield, Mass.). It is a common practice to indicate death by tying a piece of crape to the door-knob of the house, whence probably the omen.
If a hoe be carried through a house, some one will die before the year is out (Mansfield, O.). The same superstition is found in England. It is most unlucky to carry an ax, or any sharp tool, on your shoulder through the house, as it is a sign of death of one or more of the inmates. Some extend this omen to any tool carried on the shoulder through a house. At Pulverbatch and Wenlock a spade is the fatal implement; it is a certain sign that a grave will shortly be dug for some member of the household.
The editor observes that coffins were formerly carried shoulder high.
Whoever works on a sick person's dress, he or she will die within a year (Massachusetts). To put on the bonnet or hat of one in mourning is the sign that you will wear one before the year is out (Peabody, Mass.). To tie on a crape hat or bonnet is a sign of mourning before the year is out (Niagara Falls, Ont.). Don't try on a black bonnet, it means death. When a woman who has been sewing puts her thimble on the table as she sits down to eat, it is a sign that she will be left a widow, if she marries (Central Maine).