Death has always been both celebrated and feared. As far back as 60,000 BC, man buried their dead with ritual and ceremony. Researchers have even found evidence that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers, much as we do today.
Funeral processions began 3,500 years ago in ancient Egypt, out of necessity to transport the body to its resting place. More recently, mourners did not have to travel far to reach the church graveyard where burials took place. Beginning in the 19th Century, cemeteries were moved outside city limits and it became more common for people to take public transportation or horse-drawn wagons, to the grave site. Cemeteries, the final stop on our journey from this world to the next, are monuments to some of the most unusual rituals to ward off spirits, and home to some of our darkest, most terrifying legends and lore. The use of tombstones may go back to the belief that ghosts could be weighed down. Mazes found at the entrance to many ancient tombs are thought to have been constructed to keep the deceased from returning to the world as a spirit, since it was believed that ghosts could only travel in a straight line. Some people even considered it necessary for the funeral procession to return from the graveside by a different path from the one taken in with the deceased, so that the departed’s ghost wouldn’t be able to follow them home. Some cultures took their fear of ghosts to an extreme. The Saxons of early England cut off the feet of their dead so the corpse would be unable to walk. Some aborigine tribes took the even more extreme step of cutting off the head of the dead, thinking this would leave the spirit too busy searching for his head to worry about the living. The fear of a loved one being buried alive inspired coffin makers to design warning systems such as a bell on the grave which was connected by a chain to the inside of the coffin in cases of premature burial, thus the expression, “For whom the bell tolls”.
Some of the rituals which we now practice as a sign of respect to the deceased, may also be rooted in a fear of spirits. Beating on the grave, the firing of guns, funeral bells, and wailing chants were all used by some cultures to scare away other ghosts at the cemetery. In many cemeteries, the vast majority of graves are oriented in such a manner that the bodies lie with their heads to the West and their feet to the East. This very old custom appears to originate with the Pagan sun worshippers, but is primarily attributed to Christians who believe that the final summons to Judgment will come from the East.
Many early burial rites and customs were practiced to protect the living, by appeasing the spirits who were thought to have caused the person’s death. Such ghost protection rituals and superstitions have varied extensively with time and place, as well as with religious perception, but many are still in use today. The custom of shutting the eyes of the deceased is believed to have begun this way, done in an attempt to close a ‘window’ from the living world to the spirit world. Covering the face of the deceased with a sheet comes from pagan beliefs that the spirit of the deceased escaped through the mouth. In some cultures, the home of the deceased was burned or destroyed to keep his spirit from returning; in others the doors were unlocked and windows were opened to ensure that the soul was able to escape.
Curtains would be drawn and clocks would be stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were covered with crape or veiling to prevent the deceased’s spirit from getting trapped in the looking glass. A wreath of laurel, yew or boxwood tied with crape or black ribbons was hung on the front door to alert passersby that a death had occurred. First all windows are opened and the body is washed and dressed The body was watched over every minute until burial, hence the custom of “waking”. The wake also served as a safeguard from burying someone who was not dead, but in a coma. Most wakes also lasted 3-4 days to allow relatives to arrive from far away. In 19th century Europe and America the dead were carried out of the house feet first, in order to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him. Family photographs were also sometimes turned face-down to prevent any of the close relatives and friends of the deceased from being possessed by the spirit of the dead. The use of flowers and candles helped to mask unpleasant odors in the room before embalming became common.
Embalming is the process of treating a body with preservatives to prevent decay. The custom originated in the belief of the future reunion of the soul and the body. The embalming process became more sophisticated such that bodies embalmed thousands of years ago are preserved today as mummies. Since arterial embalming first began in the Netherlands in the 17th century, anatomists, physicians, chemists, and embalmers experimented with a variety of solutions and chemicals to produce an effective liquid preservative that would retard decomposition and, later, produce a life-like tint in the body’s skin. They used salts, metals, alcohols, acids, alkalis, and varied substances such as oils, turpentine, and powdered spices. By 1900, embalmers began to use recently discovered preservative, formaldehyde. The funerary profession has universally adopted formaldehyde as the chief embalming preservative since 1906. It is combined with water, methanol, formic acid, and other organic compounds to make embalming fluid. Formaldehyde kills micro-organisms to prevent the spread of disease, destroys enzymes responsible for decomposition, reacts with proteins to form insoluble compounds resistant to decomposition, and hardens and fixes the body’s tissues quickly for positioning the body. Grave robbery by the “Resurrectionist Men”, often doctors themselves was a problem in the 19th century as medical schools needed fresh cadavers for dissection classes. “Bricking-over” a grave was a way of guaranteeing some security after death. Small cakes, known as “funeral biscuits” were wrapped in white paper and sealed with black sealing wax and given to guests as favors. Lavish meals, or collations, were often served after internment. Burial usually followed four days after death. The gathering of family and friends for the visitation and funeral service helps provide emotional support so needed at this time. It also helps those who grieve to face the reality of death and take the first steps toward healthy emotional adjustment. Until a bereaved person truly accepts the fact that a death has occurred, little progress can be made in resolving his or her grief. In some cases viewing the body of the deceased can fulfill specific psychological needs of surviving family members. In America and Western Europe during the 19th century mourning became an established and highly structured social ritual. Rules dictated that black be the color of full mourning, and the strict etiquette outlining the manner and length of mourning led many people in middle and upper class families to consult household manuals or etiquette books to ensure that the rules were followed closely. It was taught among other things that you wear black to appear as a “shadow” rather than a body so the dead person’s spirit won’t enter your body. Some widows past middle-age wore black for the rest of their lives, following the example of Queen Victoria (widowed in 1861) who dressed in black until her death in 1901.Widows wore mourning clothing for two years or longer. During the first year, women were instructed to wear solid black wool clothing with a crepe collar and cuffs, a simple crepe bonnet, and a long, thick, black crepe veil regardless of the season of the year. During the second year, she was permitted to wear dull, black silk trimmed with crepe, black lace collar and cuffs, and a shorter veil. During the last six months, gray, violet, and white fabrics were permitted. With the exception of a wedding band, jewelry was prohibited during the first month of mourning and was limited in quantity and style for the remainder of the period. Other accessories, such as a handkerchief, were edged in black. Even gloves had to be a dull, black fabric.
Because the standard business suit for men was black, men in mourning would add a black armband and trimming to their hats, called a “weed.” The use of mourning clothing continued well into the 20th century. Its decreased use occurred gradually as psychologists advocated shorter periods of time to grieve before resuming usual activity. The use of mourning clothing eventually became limited only to the funeral service. White was a popular color for the funeral of a child. White gloves, ostrich plumes and a white coffin were the standard. Regardless of the final disposition, whether it is burial or cremation, funerals serve a purpose. The funeral declares that a death has occurred. It commemorates the life that has been lived, and offers family and friends the opportunity to pay tribute to their loved one. Some of the rituals which we now practice as a sign of respect to the deceased, may also be rooted in a fear of spirits.After the funeral the family often receives invited visitors to their home for pleasant conversation and refreshments As with other aspects of modern day society, funeral dress codes have relaxed somewhat. Black dress is no longer required. Instead subdued or darker hues should be selected, the more conservative the better. This are a few thing that where said or believed in at the time to let you know when a death was near or how the dead was perceived in the afterlife. To lock the door of your home after a funeral procession has left the house is bad luck.
If rain falls on a funeral procession, the deceased will go to heaven.
If you hear a clap of thunder following a burial it indicates that the soul of the departed has reached heaven.
If you hear 3 knocks and no one is there, it usually means someone close to you has died. The superstitious call this the 3 knocks of death.
If you leave something that belongs to you to the deceased, that means the person will come back to get you.
If a firefly/lightning bug gets into your house someone will soon die.
If you smell roses when none are around someone is going to die.
If you don’t hold your breath while going by a graveyard you will not be buried.
If you see yourself in a dream, your death will follow.
If you see an owl in the daytime, there will be a death.
If you dream about a birth, someone you know will die.
If it rains in an open grave then someone in the family will die within the year.
If a bird pecks on your window or crashes into one that there has been a death.
If a sparrow lands on a piano, someone in the home will die.
If a picture falls off the wall, there will be a death of someone you know.
If you spill salt, throw a pinch of the spilt salt over your shoulder to prevent death. Never speak ill of the dead because they will come back to haunt you or you will suffer misfortune.
Two deaths in the family means that a third is sure to follow.
The cry of a curlew or the hoot of an owl foretells a death.
A single snowdrop growing in the garden foretells a death.
Having only red and white flowers together in a vase (especially in hospital) means a death will soon follow.
Dropping an umbrella on the floor or opening one in the house means that there will be a murder in the house.
A diamond-shaped fold in clean linen portends death.
A dog howling at night when someone in the house is sick is a bad omen. It can be reversed by reaching under the bed and turning over a shoe.