Saturday, October 25, 2014

Festival Of Fear: Day 25: Superstition Saturday: Cemetery Lore

~by Marie Robinson

There are many names for people like me: gravers, tombstone tourists, taphophiles. They all refer to one who finds great enjoyment in visiting cemeteries. I find cemeteries beautiful and poignant places and feel completely at peace in them. Call it morbid, but I’m captivated by the thought of thousands lying silent beneath the earth, and I love the sculpture of the tombstones.

Tying in with another one of my obsessions, folklore, I have decided to write this piece up on legends, superstitions, and bizarre facts surrounding cemeteries.

We’ll start with some of the more familiar ones. For example, everyone has heard that if a chill passes over you, or you shiver for no reason, it means that someone is walking on your future gravesite. Another common superstition is to hold your breath while passes a cemetery, which has several reasons attributed to it. One is that inhaling may put you at risk for possession by an evil spirit; another is that breathing is disrespectful to the dead.

Another old wives’ tale you might have heard is that walking on a grave is bad luck, particularly one of an unbaptized child. Doing so could result in the contraction of a grave-scab, a fatal disease that’s symptoms included quivering limbs and shortness of breath and could only be cured under very specific means, or so it goes in British folklore. A pregnant woman who walks over a burial plot may result in giving birth to a club-footed child.

One is advised to never take flowers from a grave, or it could result in a haunting of the spirit of the buried person. It is said that flowers grow on the graves of the good, and weeds on those evil. It is similarly unlucky to take a piece off of a tombstone, although shepherd believed that grinding the stone up and feeding it to their sheep would cure them of ailments. Any structures that are built from recycled tombstones are doomed to collapse.

A once pagan, and later Christian belief (it always seems to go that way, doesn’t it?) was that bodies should be buried with the head facing west and the feet east, so that corpses would be prepared for Judgment Day. Bodies should be buried in their most complete possible form; for example, if a corpse is put in the ground missing a limb, it may be left to wander the earth searching for it, incomplete. The eastern areas of the cemetery were considered most desirable as they would get the most sun, and the northern corner—the coldest and darkest—was once reserved for suicides and criminals. Witches were supposed to be buried face-down in hopes that spells would no longer afflict the townsfolk. In Britain, a symbolic burial is when you hold a fake funeral for a still-living—but ill—person in hopes that it will cure them of their sickness.

The phrase “Charon’s obol” refers to the custom of placing a coin into a dead person’s mouth; the coin was to serve as payment for Charon, the ferryman in Greek mythology that carries newly departed souls across the river Styx. Although the practice of placing silver coins over the eyes of the deceased is often believed to serve the same purpose, it is simply done to keep the eyelids closed, since they naturally stay open. However, it is thought by some that looking into a dead person’s eyes will cause you to see your own death.

So think of these next time you pass a cemetery—and don’t forget to hold your breath. Feel free to include any of your own superstitions in the comments!

No comments: