Appalachia Folklore Ghosts - Haints - Spooky

Burial Customs And Superstitions

 Burial Customs And Superstitions

When I visit graveyards I look for old headstones-and wonder about the folks who lie beneath them-what their lives were like compared to mine. Customs surrounding death have drastically changed since Pap was a boy here in the mountains of North Carolina.

As The Bell Tolls


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. I suppose this also helped folks figure out who had passed away. Pap says he can remember hearing the tolling of the bell to signify death as a child. Folks who lived too far away to hear the bell were sometimes notified by a letter sealed in an envelope edged in black.

Wilson Headstone


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 tradition was 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.

Rock Headstone


Folks pitched in-helping prepare the body, digging the grave, and making the casket. Often a piece of rock (like the one above) 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 (I’ve lived near coondogs my whole life-how much howling do you think I’ve heard)
  • 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 I was warned about this)
  • Bees carry the news of death
  • Bees must be told of their master’s death or they will swarm and leave the hives

Interesting bits of folklore. I’m fascinated by how customs and beliefs change over time. Most of the superstitions listed above have fallen by the wayside in these parts-but I still hear a few of them. The one about death coming in 3s is very common here and as I said I was warned during my pregnancy. Also very common is the one about not stepping on graves-I’m not sure it’s for fear of bad luck-or just out of respect for the deceased.


I hope you enjoyed the old post-and if you have any superstitions to add to the list-please leave a comment. Be on the look out for a guest post about gravestone symbolism in the coming days.


This post was originally published here on the Blind Pig way back in October of 2008.

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  • Reply
    Angela Hatfield
    October 25, 2013 at 8:55 pm

    I heard all the ones you had on your site. I worked in nursing home and it was that way about dying in 3s. I enjoyed looking at the graves too. Play with fire and you would pee on the bed is one old superstition. I am in my thirties and some of my family in AL still have funerals at home. I went to one a few months ago. It is not that bad, especially when you know they have been sick for a long time.

  • Reply
    Leon Pantenburg
    October 25, 2013 at 10:01 am

    I sat up with the dead years ago, on the Omaha Indian Reservation. A close friend was killed in a vehicle accident, and a few of his co-workers were invited to stay up with the family. It was a great honor to be included, and the whole experience was very reverent and respectful. But there was also a lot of laughter as we recounted stories about the deceased.

  • Reply
    Peggy Lambert
    October 24, 2013 at 1:01 am

    If you hear a tree falling in the woods, some one will die. When I hear an owl I think of the book “I heard the Owl Call Name.” When we first moved back after retiring out of the military each morning some thing would leave me a few droppings, so I got up one night to see what it was and I looked out the door and two big eyes were looking at me. It was a barn owl, so I named him Mr. Will Owl from across the way. He finally left.

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    October 23, 2013 at 9:22 pm

    Over the last couple of years, I have said good-bye to two very dear friends in Cocke County, Tn. In both cases daughters and grand daughters helped prepare the body by styling hair, doing beautiful make up, and making sure both ladies nails sparkled. All the women involved felt the intimacy of the moment and were comforted by it. As for me, I was overwhelmed to tears by the love, honor and respect these beloved friends were shown by those those that loved them most.

  • Reply
    October 23, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    I am mostly familiar with Death comes in 3s and Don’t step on a grave. When I walk in a graveyard now, I still never step on a grave…weird but I think mine is a respect thing though I am sure it started from my grandparents or someone else telling me the superstition

  • Reply
    Lonnie Dockery
    October 23, 2013 at 1:37 pm

    I’ve been slapped so many times for stepping, not just on but also across graves, that I still don’t dare do it!I remember going with Mother to sit up with the dead. I don’t think I ever made it all night, but she did.

  • Reply
    October 23, 2013 at 11:18 am

    My grandfather died when I was 12 years old and I remember some of the traditions you mentioned…his casket was in the front room of the house and all the mirrors were covered in black and well as a black wreath on the front door. The family stayed up all night “sitting a corpse” as I remember it being called. My grandparents had no utilities so this was by kerosene lamps. My grandma believed in “tokens” or signs of death and used to tell me stories about them. She said when she dreamed of horses there would be a death.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 23, 2013 at 10:51 am

    My very favorite tombstone sayin’ is “I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK!”

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    October 23, 2013 at 10:50 am

    I grew up in a community of older
    folks and you can bet your sweet
    bippy I got my fill of superstitions
    about deaths. And I remember going
    to neighbor’s houses and sitting up
    with their loved ones till way late.
    Out of respect for whoever lies
    beneath, I never walk on a grave.

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    October 23, 2013 at 10:18 am

    So interesting! Heard some of the superstitons before. Last time I visited a home where a body laid in state was in the sixties. There would be white flowers on the door and signs by the road telling people to be quiet. Glad we don’t do that anymore.

  • Reply
    October 23, 2013 at 9:36 am

    It wasn’t that long ago when some of my family members had services at home for deceased loved ones. Papaw died in 1971 and laid in state at my aunt’s house. I can’t remember if they were moved to the church for the funeral, but I remember my family sitting up at church a few times. I have seen some old pictures of folks in their coffin at private homes and wonder where they bought the custom made coffin before funeral homes sold them.
    I have heard most of the superstitions, especially the one about walking on or stepping over graves. Mom always talked about people hearing death bells. I assume it was simply ringing in the ears, as we lived too far away from the church to hear theirs.

  • Reply
    Gina S
    October 23, 2013 at 9:30 am

    I’ve either heard or read of all the signs you mention. In 1959, the casket of my paternal grandmother rested in the family home. My father was horrified but went along with his sisters wishes. I was young, but vividly recall the event. I believe having the body in the home proved more traumatic than comforting to kin. I also like to wander through cemeteries. They tell their own stories. Down in Lincoln County at my mothers home church, one grave headstone has a picture likeness covered in glass of a young soldier, a casualty of WWII. His grieving mother wanted the photo there. Since first seeing it years and years ago, her loss and grief send sadness to my heart. In Johnstown PA, I walked a cemetery with many crosses atop grave sites of victims from the flood there. Another grave is topped by a lifelike sculpture of a teenage boy who died in an epidemic. We mourn in differing ways as we work through grief, don’t we.

  • Reply
    Herbal Oma
    October 23, 2013 at 8:56 am

    Had never heard of Ray Stevens before, but glad I have now. Thanks for adding that to your post.

  • Reply
    Susie Swanson
    October 23, 2013 at 8:48 am

    I’ve heard most of these also Tipper. The older people swore by them. My daddy said he even helped build his daddy’s casket. Times sure have changed over the years. There’s no bells to be heard anymore. thanks for this great post..

  • Reply
    C. Ron Perry
    October 23, 2013 at 8:29 am

    These are all familiar to me as well.

  • Reply
    October 23, 2013 at 8:19 am

    Some of these superstitions I have heard over the years. Often, I have come believe that death comes in threes, maybe not all human deaths, but animals also. This was a very interesting post.

  • Reply
    October 23, 2013 at 8:04 am

    I have always heard that it is a sign that somebody is going to die when a bird flies into a window.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 23, 2013 at 8:00 am

    Tipper, you must have been in my head! I went to a funeral this past Saturday in a small town here in Western North Carolina. As I stood in that cemetery my eyes wandered to grave stones all around us. Most were your traditional carved stones but there was one that was a very big field rock with a metal cross on top of it. I wondered if it was because they lacked money to buy a regular stone or was it because they were independent free thinking people who wanted to follow their own inner voices.
    Cemeteries always make me thoughtful. I guess it’s because there is no one there to talk to so I must converse with myself. LOL!
    A few of us set up with my grandmothers body when she passed. She was the first significant loss in my life and I had a hard time with it. I was 17 or 18 years old and it was the first funeral I attended.
    I know some of those superstitions, covering mirrors and an owl screeching but that;s all I remember hearing.

  • Reply
    October 23, 2013 at 7:26 am

    Great post today tipper. Deaths coming in threes is widely believed around where I live. Hope you’re enjoying the beautiful fall weather!

  • Reply
    October 23, 2013 at 7:19 am

    Long ago it was the custom for shepherds to be buried with a tuft of wool in their hands so that St. Peter would know why they weren’t able to attend church on Sundays.I suppose many people today would have to hold a football… Fo my own beloved, just recently buried, I tucked a New Testament in his hands.

  • Reply
    October 23, 2013 at 5:48 am

    I have heard most of these superstitions except the one about the bees. The ones about the screech owl and the howling dog I have experienced a number of times myself. Another superstition not listed that I know of is what the old people used to call the warning dreams. Supposedly, it is a dream that warns of impending death.

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