Victorian Funeral Customs and Superstitions


Curtains would be drawn and clocks would be stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were covered with crape or veiling to prevent the deceased’s spirit from getting trapped in the looking glass.  A wreath of laurel, yew or boxwood tied with crape or black ribbons was hung on the front door to alert passersby that a death  had occurred. The body was watched over every minute until burial, hence the custom of “waking”.  The wake also served as a safeguard from burying someone who was not dead, but in a coma.  Most wakes also lasted 3-4 days to allow relatives to arrive from far away. The use of flowers and candles helped to mask unpleasant odors in the room before embalming became common. In 19th century Europe and America the dead were carried out of the house feet first, in order to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him.  Family photographs were also sometimes turned face-down to prevent any of the close relatives and friends of the deceased from being possessed by the spirit of the dead.

Grave robbery by the “Resurrectionist Men”, often doctors themselves was a problem in the 19th century as medical schools needed fresh cadavers for dissection classes.  “Bricking-over”  a grave was a way of guaranteeing some security after death. The fear of a loved one being buried alive inspired coffin makers to design warning systems such as a bell on the grave which was connected by a chain to the inside of the coffin in cases of premature burial, thus the expression, “Saved by the bell.”  Small cakes, known as “funeral biscuits” were wrapped in white paper and sealed with black sealing wax and given to guests as favors. Lavish meals, or collations, were often served after internment. Burial usually followed four days after death.

In many cemeteries, the vast majority of graves are oriented in such a manner that the bodies lie with their heads to the West and their feet to the East. This very old custom appears to originate with the Pagan sun worshippers, but is primarily attributed to Christians who believe that the final summons to Judgment will come from the East.

 Personal stationery and handkerchiefs carried a black border, with a wide border indicating a very recent death.

White was a popular color for the funeral of a child. White gloves, ostrich plumes and a white coffin were the standard.

Some Victorian superstitions:clock.jpg

If the deceased has lived a good life, flowers would bloom on his grave; but if he has been evil, only weeds would grow.

If several deaths occur in the same family, tie a black ribbon to everything left alive that enters the house, even dogs and chickens. This will protect against deaths spreading further.

Never wear anything new to a funeral, especially shoes.

You should always cover your mouth while yawning so your spirit doesn’t leave you and the devil never enters your body.
It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on. If you see one approching, turn around.  If this is unavoidable, hold on to a button until the funeral cortege passes.

Large drops of rain warn that there has just been a death.

Stop the clock in a death room or you will have bad luck.

To lock the door of your home after a funeral procession has left the house is bad luck.

If rain falls on a funeral procession, the deceased will go to heaven.

If you hear a clap of thunder following a burial it indicates that the soul of the departed has reached heaven.

If you hear 3 knocks and no one is there, it usually means someone close to you has died. The superstitious call this the 3 knocks of death. 

If you leave something that belongs to you to the deceased, that means the person will come back to get you.

If a firefly/lightning bug gets into your house someone will soon die.

If you smell roses when none are around someone is going to die.

 If you don’t hold your breath while going by a graveyard you will not be buried.

If you see yourself in a dream, your death will follow.

If you see an owl in the daytime, there will be a death.

If you dream about a birth, someone you know will die.

If it rains in an open grave then someone in the family will die within the year.

If a bird pecks on your window or crashes into one that there has been a death.

If a sparrow lands on a piano, someone in the home will die.

If a picture falls off the wall, there will be a death of someone you know.

If you spill salt, throw a pinch of the spilt salt over your shoulder to prevent death.

Never speak ill of the dead because they will come back to haunt you or you will suffer misfortune.

Two deaths in the family means that a third is sure to follow.

The cry of a curlew or the hoot of an owl foretells a death.

A single snowdrop growing in the garden foretells a death.

Having only red and white flowers together in a vase (especially in hospital) means a death will soon follow.

Dropping an umbrella on the floor or opening one in the house means that there will be a murder in the house.

A diamond-shaped fold in clean linen portends death.

A dog howling at night when someone in the house is sick is a bad omen. It can be reversed by reaching under the bed and turning over a shoe.


72 thoughts on “Victorian Funeral Customs and Superstitions

  1. “A dog howling at night when someone in the house is sick is a bad omen.”


    “Lavish meals, or collations, were often served after internment.”


  2. a dog howling means there is going to be a death ,exspesialy to the owners of the dog in romany superstition

  3. Not to politicize things, but a certain number of English funeral customs probably came over from Ireland with waves and waves of Irish who came to work as laborers and serving women in England over the centuries. The Irish certainly have many, many funeral customs and superstitions about death and certainly they turned the idea of the wake into an artform – Irish wakes sometimes became so rowdy that the corpse was taken out of the box and dragged around the dance floor, or a bottle or glass placed in his or her hand, or a hat on the head. At any rate, what I was taughht among other things was that you wear black to appear as a “shadow” rather than a body so the dead person’s spirit won’t enter your body. Irish women are in charge of a wake and funeral preparations. First all windows are opened and the body is washed and dressed. I was told by a nurse here in America that in the days before modern hospitals with sealed windows the Irish nurses would always be quick to enter the room of a dead person and open the windows. Also, whiskey is often poured onto the dead person’s favorite possessions or things associated with them, just a bit in their honor. So a fiddler or a piper might have a bit of whiskey from the toast bottle poured on his fiddle or pipes.

  4. whenI was a child passing funeral procassions passing houses, it was custom to pull the curtains or draw the blinds, this to prevent the dead from entering your home, but I feel my mother did it to make the grieving family feel they wear not being “gawped at”. Also a coin was left at the gate of the deceased family home. this was central Scotland cica 1960’s

  5. It used to be that when a person died, the body went out of the house feet first. Is this correct?

  6. The office can be found on the right as you go in through the Prospect Street arch. Tammie is in the office during the week and can look up your family member and give you a small map of where to find the marker in the cemetery. Hope you find what you are seeking.

  7. my husband just told me after i read him the list of superstions that his mother (still living) used to and still does turn over a shoe under the bed when the dogs howl outside at night . it’s interesting the way old superstions have no borders races or colors. they translate well through many different places in the world.

  8. I was glad to see the custom of the “irish women opening windows when someone died” commented upon because I’ve not met anyone else Irish who knew this custom.

  9. Many of these customs have faded out over the decades as superstitions and practices from the old country have died away with the passing of our great grandparents and Victorian ancestors.

  10. I was a Registered Nurse most of my adult life and, I am Irish I always opened the window after a death in hospital if only for a few minutes to allow the spirit of the deceased to be on its way. Old habits die hard!!

  11. As a child in the fifties we all repeated this rhyme whilst holding our collars if a funeral hearse passed by:
    Hold your collar
    Never swallow
    Never catch a flea
    None for me
    None for you
    None for all the family!

  12. My Irish nana was very superstitous in that respect. She used t leave a plate food on the doorstep on Halloween. The custom against opening umbrella’s indoors is still alive and well in my household. I, myself will do anything possible to avoid walking on somene’s grave. When one of my great uncle’s died in the 60’s in Irelandmy Irish grandfather naturaly went to the funeral, and my English nana says she heard the banshee on the day of the funeral? Lastly i was told when i was 11 that it was bad luck to take photographs of graves.

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  14. my mother passed away feb 25 this year and within the last month a crow started pecking on a den window and then when it heard me talk in followed to my bedroom window,then peck on my bedroom door that leads outside and then moved to 2nd bedroom window. wherever it hears it follows even wakes me up around 6 ampecking outside my window by the head of my bed we have heard if someone hhas recently died in your family their spirit is in that bird also heard it means death to a family member does in mean inside the home the crow is pecking on or just close family

  15. I had heard the custom of the 3 knocks from my grandmother and I have experienced this on more than one occasion (weird coincidence?…)

  16. Growing up in a home full of Irish traditions, nothing is strange to me. My husband on the other hand thinks we are all crazy. The only tradition that ever bothered me was covering the mirrors and the photographs. Imagine how frighting it was as a child to go home after a family members wake and have to look in the mirror for the first time in 4 days. lol. I talk about these superstitions with my own children now that many have phased out since my grandparents and great aunts and uncles have passed. They think it’s interesting. Family traditions (not just death and funerals) are very important to our family. It’s our way of keeping our heritage, culture, and loved one who have passed close to our hearts.

  17. betty says:
    May 13, 2011 at 7:03 pm
    my mother passed away feb 25 this year and within the last month a crow started pecking on a den window and then when it heard me talk in followed to my bedroom window,then peck on my bedroom door that leads outside and then moved to 2nd bedroom window. wherever it hears it follows even wakes me up around 6 ampecking outside my window by the head of my bed we have heard if someone hhas recently died in your family their spirit is in that bird also heard it means death to a family member does in mean inside the home the crow is pecking on or just close family


  18. what type, colours, amounts of fragrant flowers were used in victorian times for home funerals? were flowers placed all through out the house? what would have been done at Christmas? would the family clebrate as always? namaste eliz

  19. I understand the meaning of the tradition of being carried out feet first in your coffin is because you “Come into the world head first and go out feet first.”

  20. I remember being horrified of pictures taken of the dead in Victorian times. It was used in a Nicole Kidman movie in an interesting way. Since then, I have seen quite a few of these post mortem portraits and wonder what the emotional payoff was, as I would only have nightmares remembering my loved ones dead. I always remember them as full of life and feeling. I know that artists often drew their loved ones, and that famous people had death masks made (this was actually an ancient Roman custom, taken in wax, and worn by the living to invite the dead to important family events). My view is that photography was like magic back then, and the idea of keeping an image was a way to remember the person. Not many people got portraits made. It must have been quite a picture to watch a funeral in ancient Rome with portraits of the dead ancestors walking in the procession!

  21. Can you tell me what they call the window/door that was used to move the dead body from the home? I have heard it called “death’s door” hence the expression of one being at death’s door. There is some superstition about moving the dead through the front door.

  22. I was born in1951 from a scottish father and english mother we lived on one of the (new at the time) housing estates.
    When any one died in the street on the day of the funeral all the curtains in all of the houses would be kept closed until the funeral party had left.
    Also anybody on the street at the time of leaving the ladies would bow their heads and the men would doff their hats.
    I still to this day keep all my curtains closed whenever there is a family funeral.
    This is all part of the ritual of life, from churching after the birth till the time of leaving.

  23. I have also heard that a corpse should leave the house feet first and ALWAYS through the front door. Both sets of grandparents always came and went through the back door of their houses ( even though that meant walking past the front door) and the only time the front doors were used were for coming in carrying coal and silver after midnight on new years day ( having left via the back door just before the stroke of midnight), and when they died, and their coffins left the house.I am from Darlington , my grandparents all being from Durham.

  24. I usually hear that 3 knock thing too, it scares the hell out of me..My father just passed 3 xmas’ ago and i was his #1,what does all this mean? Am i about to leave this world? I do think there is a God,they also say that some people just have a feeling before it’s time..What do you think?

  25. There is a tradition in our family that women should cover their faces and indeed their heads before a corpse.
    I remember the night that my mother in-law died by accident near our home. We saw an owl out side our window , it stayed every night
    about a month . we had never seen it before . It called all night and then about a year later it came back but did not stay as long. we’ve never seen an owl there again

  26. The superstition about the owl is mentioned in the list above. Seems like birds are an ill omen all around, pecking at windows, getting caught in chimneys, etc. Owls, crows, ravens are all harbingers of an impending funeral. Poe’s Raven perched above his chamber door is immortalized in verse, although there, Lenore, his Beloved, is already dead. My grandmother always said a black animal of any kind coming up on a porch or hanging about near the house
    was an omen of death to come.

  27. YES.bc its believed that if the body is carried out feet first then the spirit couldnt come back to haunt bc the spirit didnt know which house it came out of,and if the body came out head first,its believed thats the spirit can follow this trail back bc it remembers what the house looks like.

  28. My American born Italian grandmother born in 1906 (on a farm in Manhattan) . Once said that when a person died that everyone in the house had to stay up all night and if you fell asleep they would blacken you face with coal or ash and then take a match and wake you up by giving you a hot foot.
    After reading this info it seems to make sense now, it seems like it is all part of the same tradition the idea of a Wake! Seems like most of the traditions have be lost or just knowing about them and what people use to do. Often what we do today in a modern day wake is simply a continuation bit we have not been taught or forgot the meanings behind why we are doing it.

  29. when my Husband passed away , a week later about 2am the front door bell kept ringing , we had to dismantle the bell , I often wonder if it was my Husband or just a electrical fault, it never happened again

  30. As my Irish born father’s funeral procession entered the cemetery, it was raining. His Irish born cousin seated next to me stated it a good omen as surely he will go to heaven.

  31. when my nan died a couple off years ago the day of the funeral it was a sunny day just as we were about to lowering the coffin in to the ground it started to rain the sun still shinning as soon as the coffin was in the ground it stopped raining a few months
    later my mum died sudenley i never thought any thing till reading this( if it rains on a open grave someone in your family will die within a year)

    another thing we always do is we always shut the curtains on the day of funeral

  32. Birds are popular to carry a message to the ones left behind that the departed one is now fine on the ‘other side.’ Butterflies too, as well as electrical anomalies, phones that ring but no one’s there. Stacked coins where you did NOT leave coins. Interesting little tidbits. People shouldn’t be so afraid of these; sometimes they’re a bit unnerving, but hey, so is Life.

  33. One victorian supersition (at least in new england) i know is “whoever enters a graveyard carrying a casket will soon die” To solve this there was a hole the size of a casket in the iron fence around the cemetery. Whoever was carrying the casket would push it halfway through the hole then go around and pull it in the rest of the way. That way noone ever enters graveyard with a casket. In fact if you go to an old victorian graveyard that still has its original fence you may find the hole.

  34. Dragonflies are a symbol of rebirth or a renewal after a great hardship or loss. This is a belief in several Native American cultures. These people also believe that dragonflies hold the souls of people who have died. This insect (like the butterfly) is also known for the transformation from the earthly life to the life that continues in another dimension of existence. ❤ That sounds like it was a beautiful sign to witness!

  35. To knock on wood three times after speaking ill will of anything was irish custom for releasing the bad luck that could follow.

  36. these customs and or superstitions are all very interesting, i come from old hispanic families from the southwestern united states, where my ancestors settled in the 1600s, many of these customs, etc, are i believe european in origin, with probably some adaptations here in the u.s. i do notice that many of the irish customs are very similar to the my colonial spanish ancestors funeral customs, that brought with them from spain. michael martinez

  37. Has anyone heard of a superstition concerning a knife falling to the floor? I had an uncle who died quite young, in the 1950s. His mother- my Irish-born grandmother- was at home at the time working in the kitchen. A knife fell on the floor and she announced to her family that the son was dead.

  38. @ Sue: there are entire sets of superstition concerning falling or dropped flatware, china, and table accoutrements. Irish superstitions include: dropped or fallen knives=death of close relative, fallen spoons=illness, and forks meaning a visitor. Birds flying into the house are an omen of death, an owls hoot as well is negative omen. Iron shouls be hung above the door to stop bad luck as well as preventing the fae from entering the home and causing torment. If a drink (usually whiskey) is left unfinished it invites spirits into the home…May you be in heaven half ann hour before the devil knows you’re dead is a popular Irish blessing.

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  40. Here in South Carolina, a spray of white carnations with greenery is placed on the front door of the deceased’s family.

  41. I come from a Southern family and I believe the superstitoins. The bird pecking on a window or flying into a window means death will come to someone close soon. It happened within 24 hours of the deaths of My Mother, My Father,my Great Aunt in New York, and my Mother in law and sister in law..all of them. I knew it and it happened, Another one my Dad (a old cowboy) was serious about was not to lay a cowboy hat on a bed.! He would get very upset and said it is a very bad omen.I still put a black wreath on my door when anyone I know has died out of respect And I have taught all my children & grandchildren to respect the graves, dont walk on them and don’t sit on a tombstone.I? Sometimes there are coins too,?

  42. Has anyone ever heard of taking a body out of the house on a window shutter? I’ve searched the web and can’t find anything about its origin. I had a friend whose father passed away and before he did, made the family know that he better be carried out of the house on a one of its window shutters, should he die at home. The rescue squad obliged, incredibly!

  43. Incredible information….wish you’d add a pinterest button so we can share it to the masses. My great grandmother is buried in Oak Grove. Hope to visit in person some day soon. Thank you!

  44. Very interesting, there’s one superstition I havent seen mentioned which is turning on the water taps when someone dies in the house, I assume its similair to opening the window.
    Maybe its a North East England custom.

  45. Nov 5 entry speaks of not sitting on gravestones. In Atlanta it has been explained to me that the Confederate graves are pointed so that people will not sit on them and the Yankee graves are rounded and more comfortable to sit on.

  46. I am curious now about the covering the widows and drawing the curtains (shades) is it because mirrors and window panes are both “glass” so they do this to keep the spirits from being trapped in the glass? and makes me wonder how this superstition (idea) ever came about. Does anyone know?

  47. I grew up in a small town in County Donegal. I was often told that a robin was the spirit of a dead relative or friend. On the day my Uncle was buried a robin visited my garden. I had all sorts of birds in my garden, but never a robin. This happened a year later when my aunt passed away and again on the day my Mother died. My Mothers robin stayed all week! There is often a robin perched on Mums headstone too. I don’t know if there is any truth in this superstition, but I think it is a lovely story and often makes me feel better.

  48. Marion says: My Mother would take dimes or nickels with her to place on the eyes of a neighbor very soon after death to hold
    the eyes shut and tie the mouth closed … always to help the undertaker prepare the body for the wake.

  49. Has anyone heard of an old tradition whereby when a corpse left the house after being waked, all the chairs in the room were turned upside down? I am curious what the purpose of this was.

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  51. The Anglican church still requires that at a funeral a corpse must enter and leave the church feet first. In Russia the mirrors are covered as described here. In nursing homes it is known that the sense of hearing is the last to go and one must be careful what you say as a person is failing.

  52. The term is actually “interment” – not internment. (Contrary to unfortunately rather too common pronunciation… ) Internment means to gather or amass into an area (like people in camps during wartime for example), while interment means to bury something valuable.

  53. There is a section of unmarked Irish and English family graves in Connecticut where no headstones were ever placed, even though the family members were financially well off and could have afforded them during the late 1800s. I’ve tried researching any religious or superstitious beliefs that explained this symbolic custom, but found no information. Have you ever heard of this in graveyard culture?

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  56. Thank you for a charming and captivating collection of customs. When I was a young boy in Central Ontario my grandparents made it a point to shake hands with the gravedigger (or the undertaker) when attending a burial. Failing to do so meant the death would strike your family next.

  57. Pingback: TBT: Victorian Death Superstitions Pt 2 – The Write Call

  58. October 29th, 2016

    My Mother died, in my home, 6 months ago to this very day. Several of the Victorian traditions were observed during this time. Photography ( I know some are horrified at the prospect ) has been done in my family before.
    For some, it can help to face what has happened. It doesn’t mean you don’t remember them with love and the life force that they were so filled with while they were here. Each grieve in their own way. I didn’t allow pictures of her sitting upright in a chair, but lying in her coffin during her wake. The funeral director pulled me aside and commented on the youth she exuded since was 97, and she had done the work several days before, and that was not the way she looked.

    The morning of her death, several other of the funeral directors arrived to move her and as they entered the hall, they asked us if we would like to say goodbye and of course, we said yes. The older funeral director placed his right arm across his abdomen, bowed slightly, and took several steps back. Does anyone know why? I suppose it is a traditional gesture of respect and probably European, but I’m not sure. After they had gone, I went to her room and found a single red rose lying across her bed pillows………..

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