There are countless superstitions associated with death and
funerals, but where do superstitions come from? They probably have two main
sources: a search for meaning and a desire for control. We can’t stop our
brains from finding patterns in the world, even if they’re not really there. A
cloud might look like an elephant or a dragon. We might see a human face in a
burnt piece of toast or patch of moss on a wall.
When we do that, we’ve spotted a meaning and made a
connection that’s not really there. Now look at an old superstition: Never wear
new clothes or new shoes when you go to a funeral. It’s easy to see the meaning
in that superstition. A funeral is a time for sorrow, not for being shiny and
fashionable. We should be thinking about the departed person, not about
ourselves and our appearance. We shouldn’t go to a funeral looking untidy or
unkempt, of course, but new clothes will invite God or the spirits to punish us
for pride and thoughtlessness.
By knowing this, we can have some control: if we avoid new
clothes, we avoid misfortune of our own. The same kind of reasoning seems to
lie behind another old superstition: If a dead body is in a room, stop all clocks
there or bad luck will follow. Again, this is about showing respect. Moving
clocks have a kind of life. Many of them are designed to tick in a lively and
even cheerful way. That’s not appropriate when a dead person is in the room.
The person’s life has stopped and time no longer has any meaning for them on
earth. If a clock is there, ticking merrily away, our thoughtlessness is again
inviting God or the spirits to punish us.
So we can take control by stopping the clock. We’ve shown
respect to the dead person and proved we understand that death is a serious
thing. Now try another superstition: Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your
mother’s back. Children have obeyed this superstition for many years, but where
does it come from? I think this one is about reducing anxiety. Children often
worry about losing their mother or father. The fear must have been even worse
in the past, when serious illness and accidents were more common. Parents often
lost children and children often lost one or both parents.
The superstition is a way for children to take some control.
By not stepping on cracks, they show concern for their mother. If God or a
spirit is watching, the children have proved that they care and that they’re
not being selfish. So their mother will be safe and they can feel less anxious.
That’s the reasoning, although from a scientific or grown-up point of view it
might seem ridiculous.
However, there are many superstitions that don’t seem to
involve control. Here’s a famous one: If you see an owl in daylight, a death
will soon follow. That superstition doesn’t allow a response when you see the
owl. You can’t ward off the approaching death by crossing your fingers or
closing your eyes or saying a prayer. So what is the point of the superstition?
It seems cruel, giving us no hope or consolation. And there are lots more like
it: If a hanging picture suddenly crashes to the floor, a death will soon
follow. If a snowdrop grows by itself in the garden, a death will soon follow.
And so on.
If you look more closely, you can see a possible reason for
these apparently hopeless superstitions. In the past, death was a common thing
and people worried about it a lot. It was painful to hear the news of a friend
or relative passing away suddenly and unexpectedly. But those superstitions
might have been a way of softening the blow. They prepared people for the
worst. Seeing an owl by daylight or hearing a falling picture was a message
from the future. Accordingly, you were ready when someone died. It wasn’t an
The superstitions also
told people that the world was a meaningful place. Death doesn’t seem random or
chaotic when the world gives you messages. If there is a link between an owl
and a person, then there is a wider pattern and purpose to existence. God knew
that someone was going to die, which is why you were told about it in advance.
I think that’s the explanation for superstitions like that. We can dismiss them
if we like, but they tell us something important about history and about the pain
that so many people have felt at the actual or potential loss of a loved one.