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.
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.
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.
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.