10 Superstitions About Death

Man photographing a mummy
Death is a fact of life. Since the beginning of time humanity has come up with numerous ways of dealing with the dearly departed. Benoitb/Getty Images

Superstitions help people make sense out of a world that's just plain messy at the best of times, or completely chaotic at its worst. Given the mystery surrounding death, it's no surprise that people have come up with countless superstitions related to death and dying. Whether you believe them or not, it's hard to argue with the fact that they bring order to one of the most mysterious topics out there, contributing to a sense of peace and control that many people desperately crave. Read on to learn about some of the most popular superstitions related to death, dying and the great unknown.

10: Eyes Closed

Ever wondered why when someone dies in the movies, one of the first things those remaining alive do is slide the deceased's eyelids shut? It's based on superstitions related to the eyes of the dead. Some legends claim that making eye contact with a corpse spells danger for you and your family [source: History]. Others are more specific, suggesting that a corpse with his eyes open is looking to take someone along to the afterlife [source: Webster]. To ensure the eyes stay shut, it's tradition to place coins over the eyes, weighing the lids down. These coins also come in handy in the afterlife, allowing the deceased to pay the ferryman to transport him across the River Styx.

Even if you're not the superstitious type, this one just makes sense. After all, who wants to gaze into the eyes of the dead?

9: Birds and Death

Ancient people believed birds had an air of godliness about them thanks to the birds' abilities to soar through the sky like the gods. It's no surprise then that many superstitions are linked to the activities of birds, and a surprising number of these tales involve death. For example, a person who hears the first cuckoo of the year while lying in bed is doomed to die [source: Murrell]. If she survives, a family member will take her place in the afterlife. A bird entering the house or even appearing at the window also brings death, especially if the bird is black or someone in the home is suffering from an illness. Finally, some super scary birds can bring doom simply by circling the home. Ravens, crows or owls are all seen as bearers of bad news, and even Julius Caesar was said to have heard an owl hooting on the day before he met his maker [source: Webster].

8: Hold Your Breath

When you're driving or walking past a graveyard, do you hold your breath the entire time, just in case? Superstition has it that the souls of the dead are in no hurry to pass on once their mortal remains are safely buried below the ground. Instead, these spirits hang around the cemetery, just waiting for a chance to rejoin the living. Something as simple as taking a breath in close proximity to a graveyard could draw a restless spirit into your body, forcing you to share your space or even dooming you to death.

Expectant moms are supposed to take this even further, not only holding their breath past cemeteries, but also whistling as a hearse passes [source: Franklin]. The whistling forces breathe out, preventing a lost spirit from taking up residence in her womb.

7: Thunder Rolls

Attending a funeral is hard enough without wondering how the deceased will fare in the afterlife. To bring comfort and ease the grief during these difficult times, people have looked to the skies for confirmation that a beloved friend or family member has reaches the pearly gates. The rumble of thunder following a funeral has long been accepted as a sign that the deceased was accepted into heaven [source: Roud]. While rain during a service or burial may make a sad day even gloomier, it too is a good omen that the deceased is heaven-bound [source: Friends of Oak Grove Cemetery].

Of course, superstitions can go both ways, and interpretation of the weather at a funeral is no exception. While thunder after the service is good news, rolling thunder during the funeral itself serves as a signal that the deceased is heading to a decidedly unpleasant place.

6: Heading East

Superstitious folks believe that even the way a corpse is positioned for burial can impact the lives of survivors, as well as the afterlife of the deceased. It's said to be lucky for survivors if the feet of the corpse point east towards the rising sun. This makes it easier for the corpse to climb out of his grave and head east on Judgment Day – but hopefully not before [source: Webster].

The location of the grave within the graveyard matters too; The south side of the cemetery is the place to be, while the north side is reserved for less well-regarded individuals, including suicides, criminals and of course, the non-baptized. One can only imagine that leaving your loved one in the coveted southern end of the graveyard provides a boost of luck, while relegating them to the north end spells trouble for survivors.