Funeral Customs Rooted in Superstition

by MSO

Heavy tombstones were used in cemeteries to weigh down the dead to keep them from rising again.

Many of the customs we find in traditional funerals today have their origins in practices started hundreds of years ago. For the most part, these traditions were initiated to keep the dead from coming back to life as many people believed in and feared these spirits. Some early cultures took drastic measures to eliminate their fear and keep their dead, dead.

Saxons in England were known to cut off the feet of their dead so the corpse would be unable to walk back into the world as a spirit. Some aboriginal tribes would often cut off the deceased’s head believing that the spirit would be too busy searching for his head to have the time to haunt the living. People who committed suicide were often buried at a crossroads as many believed they would come back into the world as one of the “undead”. Emerging from their graves at a crossroads would confuse these “undead” so much that they wouldn’t be able to find their families and make them undead as well.

In 19th century Europe and America the dead were carried out of the house feet first so the spirit couldn’t look back into the house and lure another member of the family to follow him in death. Mirrors were draped, with black crepe, so the soul would not get trapped, should it happen to see itself in the mirror, and be unable able to pass from the Earth to the other side. Family photographs were also sometimes turned face-down or covered so that the deceased’s close relatives and friends, who were depicted in the frames, would not be possessed by the spirit of the dead.

In Victorian times veils were worn by mourners when they left their homes to go out in public. It was believed that the spirits of the deceased hovered around their loved ones soon after death. People believed that if a stranger looked at a mourner’s uncovered face, the spirit would quickly attach itself to that person. Veils are often worn during funerals today to hide the tears of the mourner or as a fashionable accessory.

The tradition of pallbearers wearing gloves originated in the superstitious belief that if their bare hands touched the casket, the deceased’s spirit could enter that person through the skin on their hands.

Tombstones, made of heavy stone, became a popular method of marking a grave but not for the information they gave about the deceased. Heavy granite, marble and stone tombstones were believed to weigh down the spirits who might be trying to get out of the grave.

Mazes were often constructed at entrances to many ancient tombs. Although most were built to keep intruders from pilfering the riches in the tomb, they also served to keep the spirit of the deceased in the tomb. It was believed that spirits could only walk or glide in a straight line and so would be unable to maneuver through a maze to come back into the world as a ghost. Evolving from this belief was one where funeral processions would leave the gravesite by a different path from the one they took to get there so the deceased’s spirit wouldn’t be able to follow them home.

Today, many cemeteries are still planned so that plots are arranged in a way that bodies are buried with their heads to the West. The practice was started by Pagan sun worshippers who laid bodies out so they would see the rising sun. Christians continued this practice believing, as the Bible tells them, that Judgement Day will come from the East. “Because the coming of the Son of man will be like lightning striking in the east and flashing far into the west.” (Matthew 24:27).

Many of the rituals that we continue to practice at traditional funerals were initiated as a means of a sign of respect to the deceased, and may also be rooted in a fear of spirits. Firing guns, ringing funeral bells, and wailing at the gravesite were all used by some cultures to scare away other ghosts at the cemetery.

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