Years ago I found a baby cedar tree that I really wanted to transplant. At that time cedars weren’t held in very high regard. I had even tried to buy one at a nursery and they just looked at me like I’d lost my mind. But I love cedar trees, especially the very old ones. Given the opportunity and enough time and space, they will tower majestically over you, their massive trunks fringed with bark and their needles naturally feathered into the perfect shape . . . but I digress. As I so often do.
As I was saying, I really wanted to transplant this fledgling I had found, but when I asked someone to assist, they looked at me like I’d lost my mind (evidently this was a common occurrence). When I inquired as to the problem I was told that I obviously wanted them dead. Given the confused look on my face they continued. If you ever dig up a cedar tree and plant it somewhere else, you’ll die when it’s tall enough that the shadow will cover your grave.
I didn’t know that . . .
Now, years later, when you can actually buy cedar trees at nurseries, I’ve found another one I’d love to move . . . which reminded me of the conversation from years before . . . which got me to thinking (something my daughter says I do far too much) . . . how many other superstitions and old wives’ tales are there regarding Death and his minions? So I did some research. And now I shall share a few of my findings with you.
- Be sure you hold your breath when passing a cemetery.
How many of us did this when we were kids? And I seem to remember we had to pick our feet up as well (or was that when you drove across a bridge . . .). Supposedly this kept the spirits of the dead from being able to enter your body. That’s the same reason you’re supposed to cover your mouth when you yawn in the presence of Death. Plus, that’s just the polite thing to do.
- Folks should be buried with their heads pointing west and their feet pointing east.
If you’ve ever noticed (and even if you haven’t), most cemeteries are arranged so the graves run east and west—and there’s a reason for that. According to Christian traditions, the second coming will originate in the east so, if your head is pointing west, when you rise to meet the Lord you’ll be facing him. I don’t know what happens in those cemeteries that are laid out with the graves running north and south. Probably a quarter turn will be required. It even worked for pagan religions since they worshipped the sun . . . which rises in the east . . .
- When someone dies at home, you should always remove the body feet-first.
You’ve probably heard it said the eyes are the windows to the soul. This long-held belief mandates that the deceased leave home feet-first so they can’t look back and entice someone to follow them into death.
- Owls can be omens for good . . . or evil.
I love listening to owls at night, their calls echoing in the trees. But I know some folks who easily grow tired of their conversations. Depending upon the culture from which you come, owls can be a blessing . . . or a curse. Some believe they are actually the souls of the living, and to kill an owl condemns that person whose soul they carry to death. However, for some just dreaming of an owl is a certain sign that Death will not be long in coming. And, should you whistle to one in the darkness and are met with crickets, then you’re not long for this world. On the flip side of that, if they do answer you’re probably good for a while longer.
- Windows can be a mighty weapon.
If you want to free the soul of your loved one, then open the windows immediately after death so they can soar into the heavens. But if you want to keep them close by (as in trapped in the house forever), be sure the windows stay closed.
- Collecting epitaphs is an unlucky pastime.
Supposedly, collecting epitaphs from tombstones is a really bad idea since it can cause you to lose your memory. I don’t know the origin of this particular wives’ tale, but it may explain a lot where I’m concerned.
And finally . . .
- If you have a dog that howls, you may want to engage in some behavior modification.
Does your dog howl at night? Well, if someone in the house is sick, that’s a really bad sign, but you can reverse the evil omen by reaching under the bed and flipping a shoe upside down. I don’t know what you do if your shoes are in the closet. To help you remember this particular warning, someone ages ago wrote a little two-line poem “Dogs howling in the dark of night, howl for death before daylight.”
So there you have it, just a few of the long list of superstitions and old wives’ tales that deal with Death. There are dozens more, maybe even hundreds if you span the centuries and the world. But for right now, perhaps these can serve as the beginning of a definitive collection. One that won’t cause memory loss.
About the author: Lisa Shackelford Thomas is a fourth generation member of a family that’s been in funeral service since 1926. She has been employed at Shackelford Funeral Directors in Savannah, Tennessee for over 40 years and currently serves as the manager there. Any opinions expressed here are hers and hers alone, and may or may not reflect the opinions of other Shackelford family members or staff.