The down-to-earth origins of forgotten funeral superstitions

We don’t practise them as often as we once did, but there used to be few things in life with more superstitions attached than funerals. Most had an air of the supernatural about them, but often they have incredibly down-to-earth origins.

In the movie ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’, one of the characters reads from W.H. Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’. The first line of the poem reads, ‘Stop all the clocks’ and the desire to stop time is understandable at a time of intense emotion. But the opening line of the popular funeral poem is also a reference to an old superstition whereby people would stop the clock in a room at the moment someone died.

Stopping the clock may have been to encourage the spirit of the deceased to move on to its timeless eternity; leaving the clock ticking may distract the spirit and encourage it to remain in this temporal realm.

More practically, if there was no accurate timepiece on view, mourners could stay with the deceased without feeling time pressure.  And more usefully, in remote rural areas where it would take some time for a medical professional to arrive and register the passing, stopping a clock was the perfect way to record an accurate time of death.

Another forgotten superstition involves the covering of mirrors. This may have been done to prevent the deceased’s spirit being upset on seeing its own ghostly image after death. Others perhaps worried that the mysterious three-dimensional properties of the mirror would somehow trap the deceased’s spirit and bring bad luck. Still others feared that seeing their image in a mirror soon after someone has died will reflect death on them.

A much more mundane explanation for covering up reflective surfaces may have been to stop mourners seeing themselves in a state of grief.

The origins of the phrase ‘carried out feet first’ highlight another funeral superstition that has very practical origins. The phrase is used to express the idea that someone is so dedicated to something they will only give it up when they are dead, referencing the common practise of transporting a body feet first. There are many reasons to carry a body feet first, not least because the head end is heavier and harder to manoeuvre.

Ignoring the practical difficulties involved in carrying a body, there is also something symbolic in the idea that the feet are leading the way, as if walking, to another world. And superstition says that bodies should leave a house feet first so that the corpse cannot look back. The fear is that the spirit of the deceased may catch the eye of a living inhabitant and beckon them over to the other side.

The modern wake is a poignant mix of sadness and celebration following a funeral, a way for family and friends to share memories and support each other in their loss. Historically, however, wakes were held before the burial. The vigil for the body, sometimes three or four-days was known as “waking the corpse” and served as a protection against evil spirits claiming the departed.

More prosaically, the period of watching over the body gave mourners time to travel to the funeral, kept the body safe from body snatchers and made sure that the deceased was actually dead and not just in a coma.

Death affects us all and sometimes superstitions are simply a way to try to make sense of the intense emotions that we feel. And, whether we take them literally or not, following rituals is sometimes easier than choosing what to do next.