Traditional European Folklore on Death and Dying
Having recently been studying Victorians and the culture of death, I have been reflecting on how many of the traditions and superstitions around death and burial have their roots in folklore. (If you’re interested in folklore do check out my post on gardening folklore).
Today we rarely come into contact with death, but in the not too distant past most people died at home. And because the death rate was previously a lot higher, most people would have encountered a dead body and likely been part of washing or laying out of family members. This meant that death was less of a taboo.
Numerous traditions have sprung up around the process of death, dealing with the body and burial — mostly to prevent bad luck and to ease the spirit’s passage to the afterlife. Below is collected some European folklore associated with death, funerals and graveyards:
When removing a dead body from a house make sure you always take them out feet first, otherwise they might turn and beckon someone from the house to follow them in death.
If you hear three knocks on your front door, but when you open it there is no one there, then it is death, warning you he is soon to come for you.
In Victorian times it was believed that lying on a pillow of feathers (sometimes specifically pigeon feathers) meant that the dying person could not pass peacefully away. This meant that feather pillows were used to ‘prolong’ the life of the dying so that family members could reach their bedside in time to bid them goodbye. On the flip side, if a person was thought to be lingering painfully, the pillow would be whipped away in the hope that it would end their earthly suffering.
Crows are believed to be messengers between this world and the next, so seeing a crow from your sick bed was believed to be an omen that death was near.
If lightning hits the house of a dying person then it reveals that the devil has come to claim them.
The last name to pass the lips of a dying person will be the next to die.
If you see a white owl in the day time it is said to portend death.
Never bring a peacock feather into the house, it is extremely unlucky and thought to be taunting death.
As soon as a person dies all mirrors in the house should be covered. Mirrors are thought to be gateways to the spirit world and it was thought to be bad luck to see a corpse in reflection. Some traditions believed that if this happened their spirit would be forever stuck in the mirror.
A bowl of salt should be placed on the corpse’s chest as soon as they have passed. This not only reduces bad smells and putrefaction but was also thought to keep bad spirits away.
Always leave the window open a crack after death, so that the soul of the departed can escape.
If the head of the household dies then the bees must be told. All family news of import must be relayed to the bees or they will desert the hive.
After death, all the clocks in the house should be stopped. This tradition releases the dead person’s spirit as it tells them that time is over for them.
To cure a relative of drunkenness, put a coin in the mouth of a corpse. Later remove the coin and drop it into the drink of the drunkard without them noticing.
In a tradition dating back to medieval times, if many people from the same family died of a sickness, a black ribbon would be tied around any living thing (even animals and plants) entering the house to protect them.
Touch the forehead of the dead to ensure they do not haunt your dreams.
Never put the clothes of a living person on a corpse. That person will die too as the body rots.
If rains falls into an open grave it is seen as a sign that another death will occur in the family within a year.
Never count the number of cars or carriages in a funeral procession, it is thought to foretell the number of days until your own death.
Do not point at a funeral procession or death will come for you next.
Once the body had passed over the threshold of the house then a nail would be driven into the doorway to prevent them ever returning as a spirit.
It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on, if you do then you must touch a button on your clothes in order to stay ‘connected’ to life.
If a black cat crosses the path of a funeral procession then it is thought that another family member will soon die.
People are said to traditionally wear black to a funeral as it makes them blend in. Death, therefore, will not notice you and take you next.
A funeral procession should not return home the same way it came or the spirit of the dead will follow and return to the house.
Many believed that you should hold your breath as your pass a graveyard or you will breathe in evil spirits.
If the body lies unburied over a Sunday then there will be another death in the family before the week is out.
Pall bearers traditionally wear gloves as it was believed that the spirit of the deceased might enter into them if they touched the coffin with bare hands.
Thunder after a funeral indicates that the person’s soul has gone to heaven.
Never wear new shoes to a funeral, it is thought that you are taunting the devil.
Whichever foot the horse drawing the funeral carriage sets off on indicates the sex of the next person to die. The left foot leading indicates that a women will be next to expire, the right, a man.
If you fall over three times in the same day at a graveyard then it was believed you would be dead within a year.
Bodies are traditionally faced with their feet to the east and their heads to the west so that when the sun rises they will greet it.
If the dead person lived a good life then flowers will bloom on their grave. If they led a bad life then only weeds will grow.
Some cemeteries have mazes planted at the entrance because it was thought ghosts could only travel in straight lines and so would not be able to leave the graveyard.
Never whistle is a cemetery or you will summon the devil.
Moss picked from off a grave stone was said to cure headaches.
If you enjoyed this post why not check out my books for more arcane history and fascinating facts.
I am writing a book on how to do historical research. I am in the chapter about death traditions and superstitions. Could I quote part of your article?
Of course! As long as you credit it to my website that’s fine. Best wishes, Claire
When my grandfather (b. 1874) died, my mother (b. 1913) opened up his feather pillow to see what was inside. She was thrilled to see a solid circle of feathers the size of his head. She said that was his halo and he would surely be in heaven now. She kept those feather, but I don’t know what happened to them since she died around 20 years ago.
That’s an amazing story of folklore in action. I love the idea that the feathers were a halo!