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Owls and Snowdrops

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 unexpected blow.

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.