Traditional European Folklore on Death and Dying

A graveyard

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:

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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.9398556943_3b5e34dde3_z

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.20227647874_66fd98b54d_o

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.

Funerals

An elaborate hearse pulled by 12 black horses
Funeral car at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral, 1852

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.6263557124_46a5b239bd_z (1)

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.besieged-house-ghosts-768

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.

Graveyards

A graveyard
A graveyard

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.

 

 

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The Last Words of Evariste Galois

A drawing of Evariste Galois by his brother

Evariste Galois (1811–32) was an extremely promising French mathematician however a series of strange events and a tragic early death would conspire to obscure his talents for many years.

Born in Bourg-la-Reine near Paris, France in 1811, Evariste’s father was Nicolas-Gabriel Galois, the village

A drawing of Evariste Galois by his brother
Evariste Galois by his brother, Alfred

mayor. From the age of twelve Evariste attended the lycée of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, but it was a time of great upheaval at the school and many pupils were expelled and the quality of the teaching greatly suffered. Evariste began to tire of his studies, all except for mathematics, for which he developed a precocious talent.

At the age of fifteen, Evariste was already studying the original papers of the celebrated eighteenth -century mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange. He began to focus only on mathematics to the detriment to his other studies and despite working at a very advanced level in maths (he studied Leçons sur le calcul des fonctions which was aimed at professional mathematicians) he twice failed to secure a place at Paris’ prestigious École Polytechnique and much to his bitter disappointment instead went to the more modest École Normale. Here he continued to excel at mathematics and was able to make some very complex leaps of logic, however in his other studies he was unusually weak. His literature examiner remarked of his exam:

This is the only student who has answered me poorly, he knows absolutely nothing. I was told that this student has an extraordinary capacity for mathematics. This astonishes me greatly, for, after his examination, I believed him to have but little intelligence.’

Mathematical genius

At the age of just eighteen Evariste began publishing papers, one on continued fractions made it into Annales de mathématiques but another paper on the solvability of algebraic equations which he submitted to the French Academy of Sciences was lost and never published. Evariste’s disappointments were compounded by the tragic death of his father who, depressed by political infighting, committed suicide. His father’s death deeply affected the young Evariste and understandably caused him to behave somewhat erratically on occasion and become more engaged in political causes.

In 1830 Evariste re-wrote the lost paper he had previously submitted it to the French Academy of Sciences to be considered for the Grand Prix of the Academy in Mathematics. However in a strange quirk of fate his paper was lost once again as he gave it to Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier who took it home but unfortunately died a few weeks later and the paper was never found amongst his things.

Evariste was by now becoming increasingly political and in 1830 he penned a pro-Republican letter which got him expelled from the École Normale and he was twice arrested and once imprisoned for six months for his stridently Republican views.

In 1831 Evariste, demonstrating quite some determination, for a third time re-wrote his piece on the solvability of algebraic equations and again submitted it to the academy. This time it was read but received a negative critique – which modern mathematicians have subsequently suggested was simply because they failed to follow his advanced and original thinking and falsely presumed his theories to be wrong.

Death

7_102014_burr-hamilton-duel8201On 30th May 1832 twenty-year-old Evariste Galois took part in an ill-advised duel, the reasons for which are murky but some have suggested it was staged to resemble a police ambush, others have indicated that it was over a woman, Mademoiselle Stéphanie-Félicie Poterin du Motel. What we do know is that the night before the duel Evariste was aware he might not survive and so stayed up all night, feverishly writing out his many mathematical ideas, which he then sent to his friend, Auguste Chevalier.

His theories safely committed to paper, Evariste met his opponent but was shot in the stomach. Hours later a peasant discovered his prone body and he was taken to hospital where he managed to relay some tragic last words to his dear brother, Alfred:

Don’t cry. I need all my courage to die at twenty.’

Galois’s papers were annotated and posthumously published in 1846. These ideas and conjectures were built upon and refined by fellow mathematicians Joseph Liouville and Camille Jordan and have gone on to form the basis of group theory, finally bringing the brilliance of Evariste Galois to light.

 

For more Famous Last Words see my new book Famous Last Words: An Anthology published by Bodleian Library Publishing on 29 April 2016.

The curious fate of King James II

Recently while researching a book I am working on (the details of which I shall reveal in October – watch this space!). I came across a fascinating first-hand account on the strange fate of the body of exiled King James II and thought it would be a good nugget to share.

James_II_by_John_Riley
King James II

James II of England (IV of Scotland) was the second son of Charles I and succeeded his brother Charles II to the crown of England and Scotland in 1685.

James was a Catholic and after years of religious in-fighting and turmoil the ruling English nobles were very unhappy to have a Catholic on the throne. The last straw came when James II’s Catholic wife, Mary of Modena, produced a son and heir, insuring the crown would again pass onto a Catholic.

It was at this point that James’ nephew William of Orange, a firm Protestant, was invited to invade England and seize the crown, which he successfully did in 1688 in the ‘Glorious Revolution’. To further complicate matters for poor James, William of Orange was married to James’ daughter, Mary (who had been brought up a Protestant), from his first marriage to Anne Hyde.

James went into exile in France under the protection of his cousin, Louis XIV*, where he lived out his days at a chateau in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. James died of a brain haemorrhage in 1701 and what happened to his body thereafter is rather curious.

His heart was removed and placed in a silver casket and given to a convent in Chaillot, his brain was kept in a lead casket and given to the Scots College in Paris, his intestines were decanted into two gilt urns and given to the parish church of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the Jesuit college in St Omer, and somewhat bizarrely the skin from his right arm was gifted to the English Augustinian nuns of Paris.

The remains of his body were placed in a lead-lined coffin and sarcophagus and transported to the Chapel of St Edmund in the Church of the English Benedictines in the Rue de St Jacques in Paris. The coffin was not buried but kept in the chapel, surrounded by candles, in the hope that it might one day be returned to England for burial in Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately that never happened.

In 1789 during the French Revolution churches were raided and coffins defaced in order to use the lead inside to make bullets. It is known that James II’s coffin was plundered by revolutionaries and while researching for a book I am writing I came across this rather gruesome eye-witness account of what happened when the revolutionaries opened the coffin. It comes from The Last Words of Distinguished Men and Women (Real and Traditional) by Frederic Rowland Marvin (1901):

The following curious account was given in 1840 by Mr. Fitzsimmons, an Irish gentleman upward of eighty years of age, who taught French and English at Toulouse and claimed to be a runaway monk:

“I was a prisoner in Paris, in the convent of the English Benedictines in the Rue St. Jacques, during part of the Revolution. In the year 1793 or 1794, the body of King James II. of England (died 1701) was in one of the chapels there, where it had been deposited some time, under the expectation that it would one day be sent to England for interment in Westminster Abbey. It had never been buried. The body was in a wooden coffin, inclosed in a leaden one; and that again inclosed in a second wooden one, covered with black velvet. While I was a prisoner the sans-culottes broke open the coffins to get at the lead to cast into bullets. The body lay exposed nearly a whole day. It was swaddled like a mummy, bound tight with garters. The sans-culottes took out the body, which had been embalmed. There was a strong smell of vinegar and camphor. The corpse was beautiful and perfect. The hands and nails were very fine. I moved and bent every finger. I never saw so fine a set of teeth in my life. A young lady, a fellow prisoner, wished much to have a tooth; I tried to get one out for her, but could not, they were so firmly fixed. The feet also were very beautiful. The face and cheeks were just as if he were alive. I rolled his eyes; the eye-balls were perfectly firm under my finger. The French and English prisoners gave money to the sans-culottes for showing the body. The trouserless crowd said he was a good sans-culotte, and they were going to put him into a hole in the public churchyard like other sans-culottes; and he was carried away, but where the body was thrown I never heard. King George IV. tried all in his power to get tidings of the body, but could not.”

This is not quite the end of the story, because in 1824 the church of St Germain-en-Laye was rebuilt and one of the urns containing his intestines was found and reburied, ensuring a small scrap of James II survives buried in Paris.

*Louis XIV was a kindly cousin and once James was in exile tried to get him elected to be King of Poland, James declined the offer fearing it would prevent him ever returning to rule England.