Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Superstitions and Portents of Death

Superstitions and Portents of Death

There are many superstitions with regard to death and burial. A superstition is defined as an irrational belief. However, most are the product of some long held belief, irrational though it might be.

A modern version of this would be the belief that celebrities die in threes. We've all heard it said. It may be rooted in an old English superstition that three funerals follow in quick succession.

A portent of death is an omen, something that has prophetic or threatening significance. Rain falling into an open grave, a picture falling off the wall, or opening an umbrella in the house. My mother always said the umbrella was common sense, so that no one would get their eye poked out, but it is a portent of death.

We have all heard of coins being placed on the eyes of the dead. When preparing the corpse for burial, if the eyes are found open it is thought to be a bad omen. The eyes were then closed and coins were placed on them.

Coins were chosen for two reasons. They prevented the staring of the corpse, as it was believed that the dead person was looking for someone to accompany him and you didn’t want him casting an eye on you. The coins were heavy enough to weigh the lids down. The second reason was the long held belief that a corpse needed money to pay their way into the next world.

I am doing research for an article on funeral and death superstitions and thought you might like to hear some of those I have encountered.

A Potpourri of Superstitions and Death Portents

If, in a row of beans, one should come up white instead of green, there will be a death in the family within a year.

If three people take part in the making-up of a bed, there is sure to be a death in the house within a year.

For a bird to fly in and out of a room by an open window predicts the death of the occupant of the house.

The flying or hovering by birds round a house and their resting on the window sill, or tapping against a pane portends death.

For a robin to tap the window of a room in which a sick person is lying portends the death of that person.

Church dust, brought to the bed of a dying person, shortens and eases a lingering and painful death.

After death all the windows and doors in the house must be opened in order that the soul of the dead may be released and fly away.

A dog howling is a sure sign of death.

If the sun shines brightly on the face of one of the attendants at a funeral, it marks him as the next to be laid in that churchyard.

Three funerals always follow one another in quick succession.

The south side of the churchyard is holiest, the north side being really unhallowed ground, fit only for the last resting-place of stillborn infants and suicides.

The first corpse laid in a new churchyard is claimed by the devil.

It is considered lucky for the dead person’s soul if rain falls during the funeral.

It is bad luck to hold a funeral on Sunday or on New Year’s Day.

It is bad luck for an odd number of mourners to attend the funeral. It is a sign someone will die soon.

Don’t count the vehicles in a funeral procession. That will be the amount of years you have to live.

He who meets a funeral is certain soon to die unless he bares his head.

Thunder at a funeral is the sound of the soul reaching heaven.

If someone in the house is sick, turning over a shoe can reverse the bad luck of a dog howling at night.

Covering your mouth while yawning prevents your spirit from leaving and the devil from entering.

The sound of a screech owl portends the death of some near relation before the year is out.

If you kill the owl you die yourself.

So, Graveyard Rabbits, watch out lest you lose a hind leg, because it is the hind leg of the Graveyard Rabbit that brings luck!
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I See Dead People's Books

I See Dead People's Books is a group on LibraryThing that works to enter the libraries of famous dead people as LibraryThing catalogs -- also known as "Legacy Libraries". It is a very diverse group of people from Thomas Jefferson to Tupac Shakur and numbers 49 individual libraries at this time.

Do you read what they read?

Marie Antoinette has 737 books in her library and her own member page. There are no heavy treatises on philosophy or theology, no law books, just piles of novels and plays, with a sprinkling of reference books and history. It seems Marie read for pleasure as do most of us.

Benjamin Franklin has 3,742 books in his library. The following are a few of the tags used: Politics and Government (273), Great Britain (238), Parliament (156), United States (147), History (125), Poetry (113), Church of England (88), Sermons (87), Medicine (82), Electricity (76).

Marilyn Monroe has 261 books in her library. At the time of her death, Monroe's library contained volumes covering a wide range of topics, including religion, literature, cooking, and politics. There were over 400 books, but when they were auctioned by Christie's not all were recorded.

Many more libraries are in progress and you can see the list here. It is interesting to go poking through the books of the rich and famous.

Thomas Jefferson
Danilo Kis
Tupac Shakur
Wolfgang Mozart
Isabella Stewart Gardner
Sylvia Plath
Marie Antoinette
Marilyn Monroe
Aaron Copland
Mary Hartford
T. E. Lawrence
PA General Assembly
Susan B. Anthony
Alfred Deakin
Walker Percy
John Adams
W.H. Auden
Ezra Pound
Ernest Hemingway
Henry Lee
Lady Jean Skipwith
James & Mary Murray
Cuthbert Ogle
George S. Patton, Jr.
John Worthington
James Smithson
F. Scott Fitzgerald
John Muir
Mather Family (Increase, Cotton, &c.)
Samuel Johnson
Samuel Roth
Joseph Smith
Hans Peter Koch
Lewis Morris
Sarah Willoughby
Benjamin Franklin
Charles Lamb
Dabney Carr
Comte de Fortsas
Theodore Dreiser
Robert E. Howard
Joseph Priestley
Elbridge Gerry
William Wilberforce
Franz Kafka
John Askin
Jackie Gleason
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Even Unto Death - Behind The Freezer


Last year on footnoteMaven, I wrote a story about the untimely death of little Elenor Palmer, my husband's aunt. She was accidentally hung while playing in an abandoned car on the family farm in Bainville, Montana. It is a very difficult chapter in my husband's family history, as I wrote in the story, Even Unto Death.

The story did not, however, end with my husband's Grandmother's death. No, a surprise was about to be found; found behind the freezer.

The house where Grandma Palmer had lived was rented and a succession of people moved in and out. When the old freezer on the porch finally died the family gathered a work party to remove it. The old freezer hadn't been moved since the day it had been installed many years before.

Wedged behind that freezer were two old velvet photo albums. My husband's uncle had looked through both albums and determined he didn't know any of the people in the portraits, so they went into a box in a closet. On one of our trips home to visit the family, that uncle offered the photo albums to me. I gladly accepted.

Found behind one of the pages of the album was a lock of hair. A beautiful lock of blond baby hair, tied with a pink ribbon, Elenor's. An exceptional find!

A lock of Elenor's Hair

My first submission for the Graveyard Rabbits' Inaugural Carnival - Exceptional Finds.
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

History Repeats Itself

Nashville, Tennessee

Fig. 1 - Preston Taylor

The interest and even fascination with which the Negro people have always viewed the great mystery of death has given the ceremonies that are connected with this dread event a special and peculiarly important place in their social life. Out of this instinctive awe and reverence for the dead has arisen the demand for solemn and decent and often elaborate burial services. To meet this demand there has grown up a prosperous business. It is a curious fact that with the exception of that of caterer there is no business in which Negroes seem to be more numerously engaged or one in which they have been more uniformly successful.

This is due to the fact that here, as in the case of schools and churches, racial instincts and interests have created demands which the white business men could not or were not able to properly provide for. A prominent feature of the secret organizations, which have sprung up and become extremely popular in recent years among the colored communities, has been the provision for sick benefits and burial expenses. This demand and these organizations have created a special business opportunity for Negro business men of which they have very largely taken advantage.

I have before now called attention to the fact some of our most successful business men have come from among the ranks of our ministers. These men have very often had opportunity to develop a latent talent for administrative work and business in looking after the affairs of their churches. One such as these is Rev. Preston Taylor, who early in life learned a trade, has been a contractor, assistant baggage-master as well as preacher, and has finally become comfortably well off in the business of undertaking.

Rev. Preston Taylor was born in Shreveport. Louisiana, November 7, 1849, of slave parents. In early childhood he expressed a desire to become a minister, and this ambition has directed his life. He has interested himself along other lines; but not for a single year since arriving at maturity has he neglected what he regarded as his highest calling.

His spirit of patriotism was shown when in 1864 he saw a band of soldiers marching along the road and determined to join them; he enlisted as a drummer and was at the seige of Richmond, Petersburg and at the surrender of Lee. Later he learned the stone cutters' trade and became skillful in monument work and also engraving on marble. He found much work to do in Louisville, Kentucky, but the white men refused to work with him because of his color. He was then offered a position as train porter on the Louisville and Chattanooga Railroad, and for four years he was classed as one of the best railroad men in the service. When he resigned, he was requested to remain with a promotion as assistant baggage- master, but as he could be no longer retained, he was given a strong recommendation and a pass over all the roads for an extensive trip which he took through the North.

On his return he accepted the pastorate of the Christian Church at Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, where he remained for fifteen years devoting his time to the building up of the congregation and the erection of meeting houses. It was at this time that he did a great deal toward helping the people in an educational way. One thing that deserves special mention was the purchase of the old college property at New Castle, Kentucky, at a cost of $18,000, where to-day stands a thriving Bible college, of which he is still a trustee and financial agent. For a number of years he was editor of the " Colored Brethren," a department in the Christian Standard, and has also written for many books and periodicals.

Some idea can be gathered of his courage and energy from a passage in his life. When the Big Sandy Railway was under contract to be completed from Mt. Sterling to Richmond, Virginia, the contractors refused to hire colored men to work on it. He at once made a bid for Sections 3 and 4 and was successful ; he then erected a large commissary and quarters for his men, bought seventy-five head of mules and horses, carts, wagons, cans and all the necessary implements and tools; with one hundred and fifty colored men he led the way. In fourteen months he 'completed the most difficult part of this great trunk line at a cost of about $75,000. The president of the road, Mr. C. P. Huntington, said that he had built thousands of miles of road but he never before saw a contractor who finished his contract in advance. He was then requested by the chief engineer of the works to move his force to another county and help out some of the white contractors.

During the past twenty years he has occupied as pastor the pulpit of two of the leading Nashville churches. The Lee Avenue Christian Church, where he has been for- seventeen years, is a large, strong and imposing edifice, of which the congregation and citizens of Nashville are proud. It was built under his direction and through his personal effort.

His philanthrophic spirit is strong, and a deed of charity rendered by him during a recent severe winter will forever live in the hearts of the people of Nashville; for through his own warm and tender feeling for suffering humanity, individual help, solicitations from friends, he was enabled to feed, warm and clothe almost a thousand suffering poor people and shield them from the cold.

In the Spring of 1888 he embarked in the undertaking business and has met with unusual success. He stands well toward the head of his profession not only as a funeral director, but as a safe and wise business man.

Mr. Taylor employs twenty-one men and often has to call in extra help. He bears the distinction of directing the largest funeral procession that has ever passed through the streets of Nashville; it was that of three colored firemen that were killed in the great conflagration of January 2, 1892. He built a large catafalque with the aid of his own men, which held all three of the caskets, and was drawn by six beautiful, black horses followed by sixty carriages, two abreast, occupied by all the officials of the city, and accompanied by the police and fire departments, the schools, the lodges, and citizens by the thousands.

Aside from his regular profession, he is president of the Odd Fellows' Association, the Knights of Pythias' Temple Association, the Steam Railway Employees' Association, and the Rock City Coal Company; he is also director of the "Negro Combine" and the One Cent Savings Bank, and Chaplain of Co. " G," the Uniform Rank, Knights of Pythias.

Recently Mr. Taylor purchased beautiful " Greenwood Cemetery," a tract of forty acres of land located four miles southeast of Nashville, laid out in lots, walks and drives, ornamented with shrubs and trees.

In all his efforts he has had the aid of his wife, formerly one of the original Fisk Jubilee Singers, and a woman of strong sympathies, and invaluable to her husband.


Washington, Booker T. The Negro in Business. Hertel, Jenkins & Co. 1907. (1 February 2009).