Heritage

Appalachian Burial Customs & Superstitions

as the bell tolls

When I visit graveyards I look for old headstones and wonder about the folks who lie beneath them. Customs surrounding death have drastically changed over the last 60 years here in the mountains.

One of the first things to happen after someone died, was the tolling of the bell. The church bell would ring to notify the community someone had died. Traditionally each ring represented a year the deceased person had lived. The number of rings helped folks figure out who had passed away. Pap says he can remember hearing the tolling of the bell to signify a death as a child. Folks who lived too far away to hear the bell were often notified by a letter sealed in an envelope edged in black.

With no funeral homes, the deceased was kept at home until burial. Neighbors, friends, and family would gather at the home to comfort the grieving family. A few would stay all night “sitting up with the dead,” this is probably the most well known tradition made famous by Ray Stevens and his funny song. Although I haven’t set up with the dead, my aunt, uncles, and Granny were all laid in state at my Granny’s house instead of the funeral home. And yes some folks did sit up all night.

Folks pitched in helping prepare the body, digging the grave, and making the casket. Often a piece of rock or a wooden marker was used for a headstone. A huge difference from today’s typical funeral home process.

Filling in the grave after burial was reserved for close friends of the deceased.

There are many Appalachian superstitions surrounding death such as:

  • If a bird flies in the house someone will die
  • If a picture falls off the wall someone will die (how crazy is this one)
  • If you hear a screech owl at dusk someone will soon die
  • Death comes in 3s (3 people out of the community will die in a short span of time)
  • Mirrors must be covered after a death in the house or whoever looks into one and sees their reflection will die
  • Howling dogs in the night signify death
  • If you dream of birth it signifies death
  • When someone dies-all the clocks in the home must be stopped-to prevent another death
  • It is bad luck to walk on graves
  • Pregnant women should never look at a corpse or it will mark the child (when my Granny died I was pregnant with the girls-and was warned over and over about this)
  • Bees carry the news of death

I’m fascinated by how customs and beliefs change over time. Also, makes me wonder if someday folks will look back at today’s way of life and scratch their heads over our traditions.

Tipper

If you are interested in cemeteries please check out The Graveyard Rabbits a blogging association dedicated to cemeteries, tombstone transcription, burial customs, and preservation.

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49 Comments

  • Reply
    Ronnie Seals
    October 22, 2018 at 11:22 am

    Sheala Kay Adams has a very funny story about a death in here home town of Sodom, NC.

  • Reply
    Lillian B
    March 13, 2017 at 4:48 pm

    I live in southwest Virginia and I have heard all of these. Though the mirror one I have always heard a little different. You cover the mirrors in the house that the person died or or is being shown in so that their spirit doesn’t get trapped. Also you paint your porch ceilings a light blue (haint blue) to protect against spirits.

  • Reply
    George Pettie
    September 12, 2014 at 5:11 pm

    I discovered Blind Pig & The Acorn today while searching Appalachian Funerals. It came up first on Yahoo. (Research for my book)
    I LOVE IT!

  • Reply
    Mari
    August 21, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    “When someone dies-all the clocks in the home must be stopped-to prevent another death ” I always thought the clocks were stopped so someone could record the exact time of death.

  • Reply
    fubleduck
    June 7, 2011 at 1:23 am

    By typo, I missed naming the entertainer who lost her father the same day a bird entered the home & a picture fell off a wall. It was Lucille Ball, & she was 3 yo that day. Afterward, she became so ornithophobic, she didn’t even want to be in a room w/ pictures of bigbadbidiboos. She once tore wallpaper off the wall of a new home of hers. It was $95 per roll. They were decorated w/ shadowy images of birds not always noticible at 1st glance

  • Reply
    fubleduck
    May 26, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    re: Bird in house, & falling picture. Entertainer lost her father when she was 3 yo, Both happened the same night.
    On the other hand, I’ve had bird-in-the-house experiences over 10 ya, & all living there are still alive. None are still there, but there’s only one I don’t know the whereabouts of, but I’ve seen her alive long enough afterward, that if history did reclaim her, it could be chalked up as an everybody dies death, bird or no bird.

  • Reply
    Louise
    November 5, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    Interesting post. I sort of believe the “death comes in threes.” It has happened a lot in my life. Sometimes when there are two, I get nervous wondering who the third one will be.
    I love old cemetaries as well. Old gravestones are fascinating to me.

  • Reply
    The Tile Lady-Marie
    November 5, 2008 at 8:15 am

    I too have always enjoyed reading tombstones…they are the last vestige of a person on earth sometimes, and I like to read their name aloud and have them “remembered” in that moment. Sometimes their are interesting epithats too. I LOVED what you said about ringing the bell. I suppose that is why Hemingway named the book For Whome the Bell Tolls….I’ve always assumed the bell was wrung as the funeral procession left with the body to go to the cemetery, but it is interesting that it was a way to communicate to everyone far and wide about a death in a community. Thanks for a really great post.
    Marie

  • Reply
    teresa atkinson
    November 3, 2008 at 12:58 pm

    my family loves cemetaries too.
    I posted about my favorite tombstone over at my place a while back.
    here’s the link
    http://maggiegracecreates.blogspot.com/search?q=cemetary

  • Reply
    Rick
    November 1, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    Making a comment on a blog post about death, I hear, ain’t so great either. Oh no! I feel a fever coming on!!
    Well, if I make it through, I’ll be honored to be entered into your give away.
    Thank you for your kind remarks about my doodles. In January I’ll be giving away a free chance to have a personal caricature done. So stay “tooned.”
    Rick

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 31, 2008 at 4:02 pm

    When my grandmother died her body was brought home and some of the family stayed with the body. The casket was open and there she was! It was quite strange to me. I was young and her’s was the first body I ever saw. I lived in an over protective household.

  • Reply
    Mary
    October 30, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    Tipper,
    I enjoy strolling through old cemeteries and reading the epitaphs and names on the stones. Especially interesting is the dates. I once saw a tombstone at Wreck Cove Nova Scotia that told of the death of a child. She was 3 years old and her brothers and sisters were buried with her. That family lost a lot of children. There were maybe 50 or so graves there and the majority were men who died at sea and children.
    I haven’t been cemetery strolling for a few years now. It’s time to go again.
    Blessings,
    Mary

  • Reply
    Just Jackie
    October 30, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Wow..did you ever bring back some memories. I remember when my Great Grandpa died his body was brought to the house and people were there around the clock. I had never seen so much food in my 5 year old life. I thought is was too sad to have Pa there. It was my first experience with death and it was overwhelming.
    All those old saying were gospel in our home. A bird flew in the house and Pa died, a picture fell off the wall and my Aunt died. I still believe.
    I don’t think there was much difference between Franklin Furnace, Ohio and Murphy, North Carolina. Maybe that’s why I feel so at home here, after 48 years in Florida.
    Just Jackie

  • Reply
    Linda
    October 30, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Interesting post! I’ve heard of some of the superstitions listed but not all.

  • Reply
    Kathy
    October 30, 2008 at 9:42 am

    I have heard of many of these superstitions. There are still a lot of people who still believe in them.
    I have something for you on my blog. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

  • Reply
    RazorFamilyFarms.com
    October 30, 2008 at 9:40 am

    First, I want to thank you for the web and spider! I’m going to blog about them tomorrow for Halloween.
    They are lovely!
    I remember being forced to kiss my dead aunt’s cheek or hand as a child. It was thought that if I did that, then I would be able to understand death. It was a horrifying experience and I was traumatized by it for many years.
    Blessings,
    lacy

  • Reply
    Queen of Planet Hotflash
    October 29, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    I love going to old cemetary’s and taking pictures and reading some of the interesting sayings on the headstones. One of my first homes after I was married was a house that the neighborhood used for funerals because it had a beautiful screened porch and I seen pictures of the many different people that had their funeral on my front porch. Customs are wonderful things, like in Kentucky when a funeral precession comes down the road everyone pulls over to the side out of respect in the north they don’t do that

  • Reply
    Osagebluffquilter
    October 29, 2008 at 10:02 pm

    I too have heard most of the superstitions you listed. But gosh if the howling dogs are true, our whole neighborhood would be dead. The Braun boys have coon dogs!
    As for the rock for a tombstone, my great grandfather has that on his grave. Thank goodness for some older cousins who showed it to me.
    I wasn’t born when my grandfather died, but I did inherit pictures of the parlor with his funeral flowers all around, no casket shown, thank goodness.
    Great post!
    Osagebluffquilter

  • Reply
    jennifer
    October 29, 2008 at 9:37 pm

    You know all of the wives tales about death are TRUE… everybody has got to die sometimes so eventually, it will happen.
    We brought a dead owl into our house for the kids to look at one time. My mother called while we were looking at him. SHE FREAKED OUT. She said to get that bird out of the house immediately. I asked if she was scared of bird flu. She said NO, don’t you remember what your Nanny said? Listen to that little Indian woman!
    Of course I didn’t remember what my grandmother said and my mother had to tell me.
    This was an interesting, week of Halloween post.

  • Reply
    Farmchick
    October 29, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    I really enjoyed this post. I find all of the Appalachian culture/customs really interesting. Just a couple of years ago I was telling an older lady at work about how a bird flew in our house and it was quite upsetting for her. She then told me about how it signifies a death in the family. Most of the others you listed, I have heard about.

  • Reply
    M
    October 29, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    What a post Tipper! I always enjoy your work…thank you!

  • Reply
    Dee from Tennessee
    October 29, 2008 at 6:12 pm

    Love to go through old cemeteries…I’ll look at the dates and wonder how did they make it through the civil war, etc.

  • Reply
    Valarie Lea
    October 29, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    We were always told not to count the cars in a funeral procession. I think it was just something my cousins made up.

  • Reply
    Carolyn A.
    October 29, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    I have heard the one about the shiver without being cold meant that someone just walked over your grave. I have heard all the ones you described too.
    The only person I’ve seen laid out in their house was when I was a child and my Mother’s step-father passed away. We lived right up the street from him and our grandmother then. The tall one in the picture I sent you.
    I didn’t understand it then, but I knew I was upset when his family came in and started taking my grandmother’s things away. Our mother told us those things belonged to him and it was his family’s right to take them. Poor Grandma, she came to live with us right after that because there was barely anything left for her.
    Our mother’s Mom had a headstone with her family name on it. My Grandma and Grandad on my father’s side had matching markers next to each other in our family plot in Harrisonburg, VA. My youngest brother will be taking some of our Dad’s ashes down to be buried between them. xxoo

  • Reply
    steve allen
    October 29, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    Great Post.
    One I didn’t see. Never rock an empty rocking chair because it meant a death in the family. I was raised in Southwest Ohio but have heard many of these that you listed.
    Steve from Florence Ky

  • Reply
    Helen G.
    October 29, 2008 at 3:08 pm

    There’s one I remember hearing when my mom’s mom died in the nursing home when I was about 7 or 8. Someone told mom she knew her mother’s time was at hand because she saw a cat walking on the window sill by grandmother’s bed.
    A very interesting post. Thanks.
    Helen

  • Reply
    gafarmwomanPam
    October 29, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    Hey Tipper,
    I do remember the old days when they brought the body back to the homeplace. When my Grandpa died in 1963, he was carried back home. I was very young, but I still remember that relatives and friends sat up all night.
    I have also heard most of the old wives tales you listed.
    I also remember Mama telling about the ringing of the bell. She said it also meant that the men would come and help dig the grave too.

  • Reply
    Shirley
    October 29, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    I live in the flat lands of Arkansas, but some of the superstitions you mentioned are familiar to me.
    Death comes in 3’s
    Covering the mirror
    Dreaming of birth signifies death
    pregnant women and the corpse(this one I experienced. my husband’s grandmother wouldn’t let me go outside when the neighbor died)

  • Reply
    City Mouse/Country House
    October 29, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    Gorgeous stones! I just love to do stone rubbings, but it has been a while. Cemeteries are such a beautiful and peaceful place.

  • Reply
    Amy @ parkcitygirl
    October 29, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    Those are some crazy superstitions! I’ve heard a few of them but most were new to me. Thanks for the great post 🙂

  • Reply
    Matthew Burns
    October 29, 2008 at 10:59 am

    I remember growing up on the mountain that we sat up with the dead up until the mid 1980’s. It was considered to be in poor taste to leave your loved one in a funeral home, and the body was hauled back and forth from home to the funeral home across the mountain every day. It was brought back in the evening, and left overnight. Of course, before the funeral home came in, everything was done at home. I vaguely remember a home done funeral, the person didn’t want to be sent to a funeral home so everything was done in the old way. I can still remember the smell of camphor. It is still legal to do this in WV, as long as you are buried within 24 hours of death.
    You got how it was done in your description. Do you, or your pap, remember the old cooling boards? I’ve seen them but never in use. My granny said they used to lay the deceased out on them where the body could “cool off” and you had to make sure the body was straight of else rigormortis would set in and draw up the body. Granny said the close family would then wash the body and rub camphor on it, and then put on their burying clothes, which were usually picked out beforehand.
    Also, i remember it was a thing of honor to get to dig someone’s grave, and be responsible for covering it up. My Uncle Dan still is asked to do this, even though the funeral home would do it as part of the funeral costs. Uncle Dan never takes any money for this, but the families always offers him. That is just the custom. Always offered, always refused.
    I have a post on my blog today about old customs of ghosts and death. You included a few of them here, I find them all very interesting. I find that if you think about it, there is usually a reason behind every superstition, and I’m always trying to figure out what it is. I know, I’m weird.
    Great post.
    Matthew

  • Reply
    Madge
    October 29, 2008 at 10:30 am

    i’ve heard man of these supersitions as well. i think people will look at us and our perceptions about and dealings with death as very strange — a hundred, two hundred years from now…..

  • Reply
    Teresa
    October 29, 2008 at 9:43 am

    I can say that walking on a grave and death coming in three’s are two superstitions that I (and my families) still hold today. It even bothers me to mow over a grave and I’ve been considering planting flowers over the graves in our tiny farm cemetery that will not need mowing down but in the fall. It’s really more of a respect-thing. And the saying, “someone just walked on my grave” when you shiver is still occasionally used too.

  • Reply
    Fishing Guy
    October 29, 2008 at 9:39 am

    Tipper: This is one subject that I have a little problem with. I wanted to speak when my Dad died but couldn’t do it. I did speak at my Mom’s funeral and remained fairly strong. I know that when the person dies the only worldly part left are your memories. The spirit moves on. Just writing this brings a tears to my eyes. I’m known as a strong person but this is where strength means nothing. Thanks for sharing this story.

  • Reply
    christina
    October 29, 2008 at 9:10 am

    whenever we would get a chill and shiver (not the cold kind of shiver, just one that would run through you then go away) my dad used to say “oops, someone just walked over your grave”

  • Reply
    Dejoni
    October 29, 2008 at 9:01 am

    I’d heard some of these but not all. I always wondered why people stopped the clock when someone dies…I always thought it was to mark the time of death.
    Very interesting.

  • Reply
    Bella
    October 29, 2008 at 8:29 am

    I had a ‘Pap’ who kept me informed of all the superstitions too. He and my grandmother had a 100-acre farm and I would hike it with him on many occasion. There was an old graveyard on it and he would tell me stories of who they were…not his relatives but things he had gleened from the elders of the town. Fascinating stuff…

  • Reply
    TennZen
    October 29, 2008 at 8:17 am

    Tipper – I can remember all those funeral traditions you mentioned. My family still has wakes in the home. I was pregnant when my brother died and my grandmother almost had a fit, warning me not to look at the body for fear that I’d lose the baby.
    And the tombstones – some had almost comical sayings on them. There is one right now in Clinton, TN that says:
    My Dear Friends as You Pass By
    As You are Now, So Once Was I.
    As I am Now, You Soon Must Be.
    Prepare Yourselves to Follow Me.
    The funniest thing I remember was that at just about every funeral I can remember, somebody inevitably sent a flower arrangement with a plastic toy telephone attached. The banner read, “Jesus Called.”
    Lordy, lordy!
    – Leia (TennZen)

  • Reply
    Janet
    October 29, 2008 at 8:13 am

    Good post. I’ve heard of these superstitions, too. The ones about the bird flying in the house, if you dream of a birth-it signifies death, not walking on top of a grave (I still try not to do that), and death coming in 3s. I guess it may just be
    coincidence, but they do seem to come in threes. I love looking around in old cemeteries, too.

  • Reply
    wkf
    October 29, 2008 at 8:11 am

    Okay is this some more of the fatalism in Appalachia? I like old tombstones too. But ( this is gonna make me seem callous) cemetery’s are a waste of good pasture land. Don’t yell at me!!!

  • Reply
    Leslie
    October 29, 2008 at 6:29 am

    Always amazing to see how people took care of things. Don’t know if I would want to sit up with the dead. I had heard of bad things happening in 3s – but not death.

  • Reply
    Renna
    October 29, 2008 at 1:40 am

    I have been fascinated by cemeteries for as far back as I can recall. Even as a teenager, I remember loving to poke around in them. My husband and I like to troll through some of the old ones around our area. Many times we’ll see entire families dead within a few days of each other, and we’ll know it was likely from disease. Then when we see several from one family that died on the same day, we’ll wonder if it was disease or a fire or an accident of some kind. It makes you wonder.

  • Reply
    noble pig
    October 29, 2008 at 12:56 am

    Holy Crap the cleaning ladies let three birds in…yikes.

  • Reply
    Egghead
    October 29, 2008 at 12:03 am

    Tipper I really enjoyed hearing about the customs and those old superstitions are great. Some of them I have heard before but not many. People seemed to be very afraid of dying then.

  • Reply
    Dennis Price
    October 28, 2008 at 10:55 pm

    Interesting post. We were talking about childhood experiences of seeing loved ones in the casket today. I remember sitting up with my great grandmother in the parlor of her home when she died. My uncles made sure I was plenty scared before sleep rescued me. Pappy

  • Reply
    Becky
    October 28, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    Very interesting post, Tipper.
    I have heard several of those superstitions.
    And I’ve heard the Ray Stevens funny song.

  • Reply
    SandyCarlson
    October 28, 2008 at 9:05 pm

    The tradition of close friends and family filling a grave is a very touching one, Tipper. I imagine that could be a difficult and emotional time and very good for those survivors to be together in that moment.
    We have the suspicion about pictures falling off walls. My grandmother had a number of frames with old, old wires holding them up. Folks didn’t move around back then or buy loads and loads of junk to decorate their homes, so I wonder if the falling picture somehow signaled a lifetime.

  • Reply
    Patty Hall
    October 28, 2008 at 8:33 pm

    I’ve heard some of these. Some are comical,makes you wonder how they came about.
    A lot of folk lore and superstition back then.
    I love the mountains in the background of that last picture. Just beautiful!
    Blessings

  • Reply
    kathleen
    October 28, 2008 at 7:29 pm

    This was so interesting and I have heard a lot of those superstitions as well! I love to read headstones and like you, I always wonder about the person who lies at rest there. Blessings, Kathleen

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