Cemeteries are either fascinating monuments to social history, or eerie gardens populated by the dead. The decline in the popularity of burial and the relocation of post-death practices to undertakers rather than families has created an aura of mystery around death, particularly nowadays. Cemetery superstitions still hold sway, even now.
But earlier eras had a different relationship with death, particularly before the growth of secular beliefs within society. Many superstitions exist around graveyards and burial. Who hasn’t heard the saying “Someone walked over my grave” if they’ve randomly shivered for no reason?
I’ve talked about deathly folklore before – I pointed out in my post about corpse roads that the body should leave the home feet-first. Ideally, mourners should take the body on a meandering route. That stops the spirit finding its way back to their home to haunt the living. Some believe that carrying the corpse in your own car is bad luck. Though undertakers could have put that about to preserve their business.
But a whole host of cemetery superstitions governed how you should move around a graveyard, or how the grave diggers should behave. What cemetery superstitions should you be aware of? Hit play to listen to the podcast episode or keep reading!
The graves should be the right way around…
One of the biggest beliefs concerns the orientation of the graves themselves. After all, most graves lie east to west. The body should have its head to the west and its feet to the east. That way the body faces the rising sun, and the final Judgment in the east.
Ruth Richardson notes that burying people with their feet facing the sun actually pre-dates Christianity, and old churchyards preserve this custom (2000: 6).
Richardson also points out that the tradition seems to disappear with the massive 19th-century urban cemeteries. They “were planned on picturesque, utilitarian and socially stratified lines” and tradition counted for little (2000: 6). That could explain why the graves in Jesmond Old Cemetery run north to south. It didn’t stop the great and the good of Victorian Newcastle clamouring for graves there.
By contrast, in 2012, residents in the Welsh town of Aberystwyth lodged complaints that some of the graves in the Cefn Llan cemetery ran north to south (BBC). The council defended the decision based on the topography of the site. Their solution was to allow local people to request burial in a section that still ran east to west.
It seems odd to see cemetery superstitions in full sway in recent times.
But an Anglo-Saxon burial ground (as opposed to a cemetery) in East Sussex has portions that run north to south, and other graves running at other orientations. It dates between the mid-fifth and mid-sixth centuries AD so the east-west orientation appears to have a Christian origin.
Open graves are themselves ill omens
Graves shouldn’t be left open overnight or they would herald another death. This one is a bit sticky for me, because it doesn’t specify an open but as-yet-unoccupied grave, or one containing a coffin. If it’s the former, then I’m guessing the second death could be whoever fell into an empty hole. If it’s the latter, then diggers should close the grave to deter grave robbers.
Corpses shouldn’t be buried with their jewellery, or bad luck would befall the family. It’s more likely that jewellery wasn’t buried, again to deter grave robbers!
As with a lot of things, creating cemetery superstitions is the best way to maintain cautionary practices.
It’s not the only superstition around graves themselves. Some believe that gravediggers should leave their gravedigging tools at the site for a day or more. Moving them too soon is a bad luck omen. Personally, I think that dates to periods of epidemics. Having to move the tools quickly implies the need for several burials on one day, and the only reason I can think of that is during something like a cholera outbreak.
The mourners needed to be careful too
Leaving the side of a grave before the gravedigger lowers the coffin means another death will follow. Rain also plays a part and I’ve heard two cemetery superstitions around rain and open graves.
One saying states that bad luck will befall the deceased’s family if rain falls in an open grave.
The other believes the deceased will go to hell, and a relative will die within a year. It gets even more confusing when you consider the saying “Blessed are the dead that rain falls on”. It’s also considered good luck if rain falls on the corpse during its journey from the house to the cemetery.
Perhaps the superstitions surrounding rain date to a particularly wet area; if an epidemic followed a rainy spell, it would be easy to link the bad weather with the following deaths, and so a superstition was born.
Some of these superstitions are difficult to date. But one thing is common; many of them predict deaths to follow. The mortality rate was not the same as it is now. According to the Office for National Statistics, the life expectancy at birth for boys in 1841 was just 40, although the average age at death was closer to 45. For girls, the life expectancy at birth was 43, although the average age was 48. Compare that to 1981, when the average age had risen to 73 for men, and 80 for women.
Avoid being buried first or last in a cemetery
Many considered it extremely bad luck to be the first burial in a cemetery. I’d consider it would be bad luck for the individual to need to be buried at all, but that’s how the superstition ran. I’m going to assume they meant it was bad luck for the family. So brand new cemeteries would often bury an animal, or a vagrant, as the first burial instead. This was the case even in Jesmond Old Cemetery, which opened in 1834.
I did hear a ghost tale that the spirit of the first burial remains to guard the cemetery. Perhaps that’s why it was considered unlucky. The other burials could pass into the next life, but you’d be stuck hanging around watching goths drink red wine and read Poe among the headstones.
That could explain why it was considered bad luck to visit a cemetery at night. You’d either encounter the guardian spirit – or the local youth contingent.
That said, I’ve also heard it that it’s the spirit of the last burial who has to remain to watch over the others. I don’t quite believe that one. No one would know how long a cemetery would be open until the authorities considered it closed.
Moving around a cemetery has its own problems
Yet it was also considered bad luck to be the first mourner to leave the cemetery. Apparently it could even invite death. A related superstition claimed that if a woman left the cemetery first, a woman would be the next to die. If a man left first, a man would die next. Naturally, people needed to leave the cemetery eventually, so perhaps families took servants along to leave the cemetery before the mourners did.
I’ve long remembered that you should hold your breath while passing a cemetery unless you want to inhale the spirit of the recently departed. Alternatively, you can tuck your thumbs into your fists if you pass a cemetery, in order to protect your parents.
The most famous of the cemetery superstitions is that it’s considered bad luck to step over a grave. I know I always apologise if I need to step over a grave, and I have no idea why I do that. I’ve also heard it said that he who walks over a grave will soon die.
That said, many cemeteries used the areas that are now under footpaths as the site of their unmarked graves for the poor, so plenty of people will have walked over them! Graves could collapse once the coffins decayed. Since families buried the poor in shrouds, collapses caused less concern. The superstition possibly results from that.
Doctors advised pregnant women not to walk on graves, or their children would be born with club feet. In earlier times, with poor medical advice, it would be easier to blame something the woman did than try to understand a disabled child.
Even pointing at a grave could bring bad luck. Given the proliferation of photos of graveyards, that means a lot of people have been willingly courting bad luck!
According to one website, collecting epitaphs means the collector will lose their memory.
That would explain a lot in my case…
Have you heard any of these cemetery superstitions? Let me know in the comments!
BBC (2012), ‘Bodies buried ‘wrong way’ at Aberystwyth cemetery’, BBC, available here.
Office for National Statistics (2012), ‘Mortality in England and Wales: Average Life Span, 2010’, Office for National Statistics, available here.
Richardson, Ruth (2000), Death, Dissection and the Destitute: The Politics of the Corpse in Pre-Victorian Britain, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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