Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Death Becomes Us

I save my new, shiny pennies to take along when I visit the local cemetery. As I walk among the graves, if I happen to notice a presence or hear something, I push a penny down deep into the ground near the headstone as an acknowledgement of the communication. Some people leave coins on the headstone, some leave pebbles and it's not unusual,especially in the South, to leave small figurines,notes,pinwheels and all manner of decoration at the grave site. And of course there are always flowers and flags. There are endless superstitions and taboos concerning death and burial practices, and I'd like to share a few in this post since we're entering a season when the subject is on everyone's mind.

Often we leave tokens of our affection because we're still grieving, or as a way to show our love and how much the deceased are missed. It's a world wide phenomenon which crosses the boundaries of societies, cultures and religions. Individual graves are enhanced by the addition of memorial lights-hanging candle holders lit by candles, small solar-powered crosses or lights placed by the headstone for various reasons: to hold eternal vigil is the most popular reason.

At the approach of death, all the windows and doors of the house were thrown open so as not to impede the fleeing spirit on it journey to the afterlife. Bells were rung nine times as someone actively died, and tolled the same number of times as they lived. Family members sometimes attempted to inhale the last breath of the dying or catch it in a bottle to preserve his/her essence. Candles were lit so the deceased was not frightened by the dark, clocks were stopped at the moment of death in respect, and mirrors were turned toward the wall so the spirit would not become confused and trapped in them. Tables were set one last time to include the deceased. Their clothes were washed separately, Speaking ill of the dead was ill will. Animals are believed to have precognition; interestingly, President Lincoln's dog ran wildly around the White House howling shortly before his assassination. Animals have also been known to grieve the loss of a master or mistress, refusing to leave the grave.

Most coffins are placed with the head in an easterly direction, a tradition originating from the Christian belief that Jesus will return in the East to call his followers to him. Many cemeteries do so now out of habit. The sunny South side of any church yard is preferred over the colder North, which in bygone days was reserved for criminals and suicides. The landscaping and development of huge memorial parks has made this a moot point. There is an old belief that a newly dig grave should never be left open over a Sunday, or someone else will die to fill it. Modern day burial practices have remedied this by the grave being covered as part of the procedure of digging. Walking or stepping over a grave was unlucky (and disrespectful). Using headstones for anything other than its intended purpose, especially in building, is believed to cause the building to collapse. Roads and walkways made from purloined headstones will wash out. Accidents will happen repeatedly in that place until the stones are removed.

In an earlier time, it was believed that the most recently buried person was assigned to watch over the grave yard until another burial took place: this spirit was known as a church yard watcher. Other superstitious beliefs included one in which the soul of the first person buried in a new cemetery belonged to the Devil, and because of this often an animal was substituted to become the first burial. In other instances, fake funerals took place in the hope of curing diseases (particularly in cases of children during the 19th century). Especially in the British Isles, a death was often foretold by the appearance of a animal such as a crow, cat or dog. Spirits of the dead were seen to portend a death, and the dying often sees a deceased loved one whom they believe to be welcoming them to the afterlife. It was a matter of custom that when a death took place the person was buried with their Bible, prayer book or other sacred belongings.

There is an old German superstition that if the death of a person was mistakenly announced it added an extra 10 years were added to their life. Coal miners refuse to return to work after the death of a colleague during an accident until he has been buried. Sailors are particularly uncomfortable when a dead body is present aboard ship. As an unusual contradiction of logic, it is said that touching a corpse brings good luck and relieves nightmares. And the corpse of a murder victim will bleed if touched by the murderer at a funeral.

Bodies should be buried intact and whole,because it is believed that the dead individual would not be accepted into Heaven. Because of this, people were known to save any teeth they had pulled to add to the box when they were buried. In a previous era bodies were buried from the home by family and friends and this lead to the custom of keeping vigil with the corpse until it was laid to rest. The keeping of a 'wake' is legendary in Irish lore, and those attending usually had a final tribute drink (or more likely several) with the deceased. The body was buried feet first, the reverse of entering life, so the ghost would not return.

In my great-grandparents' time there was a belief that no farmer should plough near the edge of a graveyard, lest the crops die or the act bring bad luck. Likewise, there was no digging near a grave for fear of unleashing a vengeful spirit or disturbing the dead. Exhuming or moving a grave was also risky business.

Thanatology- the scientific study of death and practices surrounding it-is a fascinating subject. Every culture, ethnic group and religious tradition has its own customs and taboos. The transition from Life to Dead is not only a rite of passage, but a subject I feel is vitally important for everyone to explore...after all, we all depart this common life when we die.

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