Appalachia Ghosts - Haints - Spooky

Death Superstitions and Traditions in Appalachia

Death superstitions in appalachia

Like many people, I like to walk around old graveyards reading headstones and wondering about the folks who lie beneath them as I go. Customs surrounding death have drastically changed over the last 60 years here in the mountains. But there are a few of the old traditions and superstitions that are still being upheld, at least for now.

When Pap was a boy one of the first things to happen after someone died, was the tolling of the bell.

The church bell was rung to notify the community someone had died. Traditionally each ring represented a year the deceased person had lived. Ringing out the years of life helped folks figure out who had passed away.

In some areas folks who lived too far away to hear the bell were notified by a letter sealed in an envelope that was edged in black.

With no funeral homes, the deceased were kept at home until burial. Neighbors, friends, and family with food in hand would gather at the home to comfort the grieving family in much the same way that they do today.

Close friends and family would stay all night- sitting up with the dead. This may be the most well known tradition since it was made famous by Ray Stevens and his funny song.

In my lifetime several of Granny’s family members lain in state at Granny Gazzie’s house instead of at the local funeral home. In fact, Granny Gazzie was one of them. During her death and the deaths of my aunt and uncles I never thought it odd that their visitation service was held at home instead of in town at the funeral home. I wasn’t one of the folks who set up all night with the loved ones, but there were others in the family who did.

In days gone by folks pitched in to help when someone died. They prepared the body, dug the grave, and made the casket. One of The Deer Hunter’s friends lost an uncle last year and the men in the family built the casket themselves. He told me staying up all night with the other family members and working on the casket that they would lay their beloved uncle, brother, father, and friend in to rest was of the most meaningful things he had ever taken part in during his life.

Filling in the grave once the deceased was buried was reserved for close friends.

There are tons of Appalachian Superstitions surrounding death and its omens. I’ve joked that it seems like pretty much everything portends death in Appalachia. Here’s a few superstitions that come quickly to mind:

  • 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 (This one is still alive and well in southern Appalachia and I believe it myself.)
  • 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 coon-dogs my entire life and let me tell you everyone in Brasstown would be dead by now!)
  • 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 (I can remember being cautioned about this one as a child and I passed it on to my girls. Its actually a combination of respect for the dead and a fear of bad luck.)
  • Pregnant women should never look at a deceased person or it will mark the unborn child (When my Granny Gazzie died I was pregnant with the girls and I was warned over and over about this one.)
  • You must tell the bees if there is a death in the family or they will swarm
  • Bees carry the news of death
  • Never rock an empty rocking chair because it signifies death


Traffic pulls to side of the road out of respect for the funeral procession

Back in the summer I was reminded of a funeral tradition that I’ve always taken for granted.

My sister-n-law Kim lost her Daddy, Robert, at the end of August. That means my nephews and niece lost both their Grandpaws in the space of a few months.

Robert and Pap were great friends. They went to Martins Creek School together as boys and had some great stories to tell about those days. They were both tickled to death when their families were joined together in marriage when my oldest brother Steve and Kim got married back in the day.

Robert and Pap remained close friends right up until their death. In fact, Robert ended up having the same hospice nurse as Pap did. Kim told me when Robert first met the nurse he told her all about his family and how proud of them he was. When he mentioned having two grandsons who had received full ride scholarships to Yale the nurse commented that kids around here must be really smart because she had another patient with two grandsons going to Yale on full scholarship. Robert took extra delight in saying “If you’re talking about Jerry Wilson then it’s the same grandsons.”

Pap was buried at the church where his funeral was held so there was no procession of cars driving to the cemetery, there was only the walk across the road to the plot under the old oak trees. Robert’s funeral service was held at a funeral home in Blairsville GA and he was laid to rest back over the NC state line in the community of Bellview beside his lovely wife Evelyn and their beloved daughter Robby and son Keith.

As we drove the distance between the funeral home and the graveside service my heart was brightened by all the cars who pulled to the side of the busy road in respect for Robert and his loved ones.

Traffic stopping out of respect for the funeral procession is a death tradition in Appalachia that I hope never ever goes away.


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  • Reply
    Lisa Packer
    September 21, 2021 at 2:56 am

    I was adopted as a baby, so I have no genetic links to my family. My Papaw died about 6 weeks before my youngest was born, and there was no way I would miss his funeral, and that included looking at him in the coffin. When my son was born, he looked just like my Papaw, including ears that stuck out and a certain facial expression from one of Papaw’s last Olan Mills picture. Again, no genetic connection, just Papaw’s funeral while I was pregnant.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 28, 2016 at 12:18 am

    When my wife’s parents died their bodies were taken to the church the evening before the funeral and the receiving held that night. Somebody had to stay there all night and right up to the start of the service. I got elected be one of the overnighters at her mother’s wake because I was working third shift and staying up all night was not a problem. The receiving went on almost to midnight then the crowd got sleepy and slipped out. Soon it was only me and a couple of her grandsons. I found a hymnal and we started singing everything we knew. I sang Bertha’s favorite song, “The Great Speckled Bird” and my own mother’s” I’ve Never Been This Homesick Before.”
    I can’t say it was fun staying up all night with a dead body in the room but it was rewarding. A calm peaceful reverent feeling filled the sanctuary. Not spooky in the least. No feeling of ghosts and apparitions but a feeling there were more than the four of us there. Many many more.

  • Reply
    October 27, 2016 at 11:51 pm

    Tipper, I can’t leave the house because that is always the day you have your best posts. I have just made up my own superstition. Never one to be totally appropriate, I will go ahead and post at almost midnight.
    I try very hard not to be superstitious, but as the old folks used to say, I guess “it is born and bred in me.” I do so very much believe death comes in threes, and I get a shiver when anyone tells me a bird got in their house. Mom swore the hummingbirds (which dad loved) hung around a window for a month. Marking babies seemed to be a common occurrence back when, and all were warned to not watch horror movies while with child. I went to a freak show at a carnival before my daughter was born, and my mother had a conniption fit. Even though my preferred religion speaks against superstition, it is obvious to me that life is not made up of just the five senses. We are much too intricately created for that to be all here is!

  • Reply
    Rev. RB
    October 27, 2016 at 10:15 pm

    Being from central Europe, our maternal Grandmother was very superstitious. One morning a bird flew into the picture window over our sink, and before the hour was out, someone (I think our Mom) was up on a ladder washing it off. The day our Great-Grandmother died, the picture of the Last Supper that she gave to our Mom fell off the wall. Later that day, the phone rang, and my mother was stunned to hear of her death.
    I remember the one about walking on one side of the headstones versus the other, but can’t remember which is which now. I do remember if you walked on the wrong side, either of our Grandmas would scold you. And I remember it was bad luck to cross a line of funeral cars with your vehicle. I haven’t seen cars pulling to the side of the road lately, but it sure was nice when they did. Nowadays everyone’s so in a hurry, I wonder if some even realize a funeral is passing by. Sad.
    God bless.

  • Reply
    Mark Selby
    October 27, 2016 at 10:05 pm

    The way it was explained to me about the origin of sitting up with the dead is that it was done so as to prevent animals from eating on the body. Back in the day when houses weren’t so secure, the only way to be sure that some animal didn’t come in was to sit up and keep watch.
    My Mama died a year and a half ago, and I’m proud to say I tolled the church bell, dug her grave, and filled it in. We took liberties with those traditions, though, as it took us until the next day to get to the church to toll the bell, and since her body was cremated, we had to dig only a small hole. But just like the story above about staying up all night building a coffin, it was a good and honorable thing to do. I would encourage anyone to do likewise.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 27, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    When an empty rocking chair rocks by itself it indicates a death has occurred and its occupant doesn’t know yet.
    When you have a sudden unexplained shiver it’s because a rabbit ran across the place where you grave is going to be.
    Dogs can see ghosts. People can too if they know how to look for it. The trick, when Ruby Sue sees the ghost, is to kneel down right behind her and sight up her backbone and between her ears. You’ll see the same ghost she sees.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    October 27, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    One of the oddest old traditions, although I don’t know how common, was having a photo made of the family posing around the open casket. The ones I have seen have the casket standing nearly vertically with family gathered around the deceased. I have run across a few of these photos during my genealogy research.

  • Reply
    October 27, 2016 at 2:07 pm

    I called Donna Lynn at our Christian Radio Station and asked her to play “River of Jordan” and while we were talking I mentioned The Pressley Girls was performing today at Wofford College in Spartenburg, S.C. and she put the blooming thing on the Air. Then just before she went off, she played “Angles Rock Me to Sleep” and one by Paul and Pap. …Ken

  • Reply
    October 27, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    Over the years I’ve met many a funeral procession on the roads and pulled over till it got by. And it shows respect for the crowd in the procession. I’m like you, this is something I hope never disappears.
    Soon those folks at Wofford College will get to see and hear Our Pressley Girls perform.
    I know they’ll fall in love with those twins the way we have. …Ken

  • Reply
    Don Casada
    October 27, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    I’ve pretty much lost my attentiveness to not walking over graves in the last couple of years since I’ve been the chief lawn boy at the Bryson City Cemetery. But it does my heart good to see people being respectful in how they wend their way through cemetery grounds.
    The Bryson City Cemetery is fairly full, but we do have the occasional burial here. Late this summer, I went up in the late afternoon after the funeral and burial services and ran into a couple, one of whom was a son of the fellow who had been buried. They mentioned that as they rode in the funeral procession how everyone had pulled over and stopped as they passed, and what a lovely thing it was that there was still a place where folks were that respectful. I’m with you, Tipper – I hope that never goes away.

  • Reply
    Ed Karshner
    October 27, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    I’m with you. I’ve taught my kids to not walk over graves. That was drilled into me as a kid. I also like the custom of pulling over for a funeral procession. I’ve always found the idea of having the home as a funeral site interesting. When I was in high school, I dated this girl whose family owned one of the oldest farm houses in the county. It sat in the rural area between Chillicothe and Circleville right on the Ross/Pickaway County line. The house had a huge parlor and in the late 1800s and up to the 1920s, the home owners would open the parlor for funerals. It was kind of a community place being the largest “venue” for the people in the hills and hollas to use. I always found that fascinating and the house was definitely haunted.
    One other interesting note, the girl I dated and her family were from Dayton and her Dad was a doctor. The house had sat empty since the 1960s until they bought it in the late 80s. When I was a kid, the factory my Dad worked for went on strike. It was around Christmas so my Dad took a job working for a tree nursery. The nursery used the house as a warehouse. I’ll never forget the time that our family’s got together. They had fixed the house up real nice and it was very fancy. When my Dad walked in, he said to the doctor, “Last time I was in here, I stacked this room floor to ceiling with fertilizer.” It was funny.
    I agree with Jim, historic grave markers, especially in Appalachia, are very cool indeed.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 27, 2016 at 11:45 am

    The first and last wake I attended was my grandfather’s. The large room was emptied except for a buffet that held food and was pushed against a long wall. The entrance swinging door in that wall went into the kitchen. The church brought chairs that sat in a row in front of the casket. There were only two rows of, if I remember correctly, four or five. My grandmother was dressed in a long dress, all in black with a scarf over her head. She sat in the front chair, (usually holding a handkerchief, crying at times, after she would get up and look at my grandpa in the casket. When someone would arrive at the house, they would go in the room to visit family and up to the casket. If it was a long seen family member my grandmother would let out a mournful cry that sent shivers up my spine. She would then sob almost uncontrollably as she sat down with the long unseen relative/person who by then was trying to console her during their visitation. I know that made them feel more terrible not having seen my grandpa in so many months or years. I don’t think I will ever forget it!
    I thought that if the pain of someone dying caused all that sorrow I didn’t think I could ever live through it and would die as well. Children get all these ideas when they witness something like this.
    When a neighbor which was always a few pastures away, a church member, or a former worker came by and also brought food, it was piled high with all the rest on the table and cold things taken to the kitchen. When we were scooted out to the foyer, we played on the stairwell steps and was finally happy to see some cousins arrive from other parts of NC and TN. We got to go outside and play, the older of us discussing the whole situation.
    Bringing food to the family was a common tradition back then as well as some today. Church and the distant family members setting up the table for folks nourishment during the long hours before the body was taken to the church the next day. Then following the burial, dinner was ready when we got back to Grannies. I remember being so glad when my grannie finally went to bed. We all the family and close friends gathered out on the front porch to talk and some of the men napped, while Granny rested, after being up all day and all night.
    I really don’t like wakes per say, I guess this was called one, even though I don’t remember anyone naming it such!
    Thanks Tipper,
    PS I believe in the threes, too. My husbands brother, sister-in-law and our son passed within a short period of time.

  • Reply
    Sheila Bergeron
    October 27, 2016 at 9:21 am

    When I was pregnant with my twins…before I found out …my Mamaw passed.She had had boy/girl twins and I had looked at her picture. My mother says that marked my babies.

  • Reply
    October 27, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Having been raise up north, I was not familiar with pulling to the side of the road for a funeral procession. I love this tradition! It not only is a show of respect, but gives one pause to reflect on life.

  • Reply
    Vernon Kimsey
    October 27, 2016 at 8:40 am

    I remember the casket of my great grandmother lying in the living room of my grandparents house in Young Harris surrounded by flowers. I must have been 4 or 5 at the time. It seemed very strange to a small boy. Now that I am older, it seems much more natural to have your loved ones in the home at the end of their lives.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    October 27, 2016 at 8:24 am

    Probably my earliest memory is of my step-grandpa lying in state at his house. In my lifetime, as you note, this tradition has all but ended. As an example, my Dad used to say if he didn’t have enough friends to bury him he would be in bad shape. In the end, though he had plenty of friends, the funeral home dug and filled the grave. While it is understandable, something of value has been lost in the change.
    Dogs howling signifying a death, not walking on graves and not rocking an empty chair are each thingd I grew up with. And I was talking to someone last night about the tradition of stopping for a funeral. I have heard that it is a Southern thing but regardless I think part of the reason for it is obedience to the biblical admonition to stop and consider our own mortality.
    Related to your post, there was a tragic traffic accident in our church family this past Sunday afternoon in which a mother and daughter died. Another driver took several pictures and in just one of them an angel-like figure is hovering over the scene.

  • Reply
    October 27, 2016 at 8:19 am

    My great-great grandfather was born in a cabin near Kingston, Tennessee, in 1813. Having a family interest in that time and place, I understand that clocks were stopped so dead souls would know their time had come, and that looking glasses were shrouded to forestall a backward glimpse in a mirror that might tempt the departed to return. Resting on the chest of the deceased, serene in an open coffin, a platter of earth mixed with salt symbolized the reunion of the flesh and the spirit. Pipes and tobacco, alcohol and refreshments were laid out for a night-long vigil.
    Haven’t seen this elsewhere, but I’ve also read that when a family member died backwoods families might place a tub of water on the stoop outside the door. This age-old Continental European ritual invites Death, having done his work, to rinse his scythe and stride grimly away.

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    October 27, 2016 at 8:06 am

    Tipper–At some point down the road I would encourage you to devote a blog to tombstone inscriptions. To me, they are one of the most fascinating aspects of mountain folkways associated with death. There are many variations to complete the inscription that starts:
    Stranger as you pass me by,
    As you are now so once was I
    I have two personal favorites. One is found on the tombstone of famed mountain sportsman Mark Cathey, about whom I’ve written extensively, in the Bryson City Cemetery. It was crafted by a local minister, Rev. W. Herbert Brown, and reads:
    Mark Cathey, beloved hunter and fisherman,
    Was himself caught by the gospel hook
    Just before the season closed for good.
    The other is sort of open to interpretation:
    Ma loved Pa,
    Pa loved women.
    Ma caught Pa,
    With one in swimming.
    Here lies Pa.
    Far from fascination with cemeteries, customs associated with death, and tombstones being morbid, I think it attests to an enduring devotion to those who have gone before, the paths they trod, and the way they opened before us.
    Jim Casada
    P. S. I look forward to seeing you and the girls in Spartanburg later today.

  • Reply
    October 27, 2016 at 8:01 am

    Only two I’ve heard before are the screech owl and the rocking chair. Interesting post, as always it’s well written.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    October 27, 2016 at 7:55 am

    I have always heard that the 3 day wait before burial was to allow the spirit to realize he was dead and move on. More likely it started before embalming to make sure the person was truly dead.

  • Reply
    Kim Stalcup
    October 27, 2016 at 6:59 am

    I grew up hearing that seeing an injured place on someone while pregnant would “mark the baby.” When I was pregnant with Dude, Jason’s Granny Stalcup either hurt or had surgery on her knee. I don’t remember seeing the injured area but Dude still ended up being born with a teardrop shaped birthmark on his knee. Funny coincidence, huh?!

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 27, 2016 at 6:57 am

    I’ve heard most of those death superstitions and wondered where in the world people came up with them. When my grandmother died she was brought home and remained there till the funeral and we sat up over night with her body. It was my first funeral, the first loss of family and was somewhat traumatic for me.
    I’m not sure I agree with our traditions surrounding death and burial but I do agree that it provides a way for us to process the loss.

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