The Grim Reaper

Death is universally regarded as a rite of passage because it is the supreme initiation – the beginning of a new spiritual existence. 

Superstitious fear has always dictated that everything possible be done to ensure the safe passage of the deceased’s soul into the afterlife, particularly because the dead were considered far more powerful in that state than they ever were during their lifetimes. Consequently, complex and universally extensive customs have evolved in all cultures around the dying and dead to gratify and appease their spirits. Ancestor veneration, therefore, has become an important cultural characteristic in many varied communities worldwide. 

In some African and Asian cultures, a family member’s death is not seen as destroying the important solidarity of a family. The ‘living dead’ are still looked on as elders of the family and are seen as maintaining an interest in their daily affairs, therefore respected and consulted in all matters. Ancestors are thought to wield power beyond the grave for about three to five generations, and then be replaced by more recently dead family members within the living’s memory span. Neglect of family’s ancestors is thus perceived as bringing illness and misfortune to the living. Conversely, unworthy people in the community or those who do not have children are not accorded the benefits of ancestor veneration, this being one reason, why childlessness is considered a great tragedy in these cultures. In turn, the dead soul is given strength in the afterlife through offerings and prayers from the living. 

In many societies, only prescribed ritual burial, which formally conducts the dead person’s soul to the other world, confirms death, and he who is not buried according to the people’s custom is not regarded as dead. Most Australian Aborigines believed that the deceased’s spirit lingered around the living, especially those close to the person in life. Relatives, therefore, flagellated themselves and cut their flesh to clearly indicate their grief to the dead. It was firmly believed that unless the dead were properly put to rest, they continued to bother the living, going so far as to steal them. Similarly, on the European continent, it was believed that those dying without the relevant and appropriate rites were not properly dead. Hence, they were greatly feared by the living because they were thought likely to return as vengeful ghosts.

The time before death and the moments of dying were once surrounded with numerous superstitious beliefs and, therefore, over time in different cultures, various ritual tasks to be carried out evolved. A widely held superstition in Europe was that the dying person’s soul could not easily pass out of the body if he or she was lying across the direction of the floorboards. If the person was lingering, the bed was moved around until it lined up with the boards’ direction. Another belief related to dying was that a pillow stuffed with pigeon or dove feathers caused untold agonies to the dying person, which is why pillows were often taken from someone struggling with death. It was also considered important that nobody should stand at the foot of the bed when a person was dying, as it greatly hindered the spirit in its departure. 

Similarly, a notion prevailing for centuries in most coastal towns throughout England and Europe was that deaths occurred during the ebbing of the tide. Charles Dickens referred to this tradition in his novel, David Copperfield, when Mr. Peggotty remarks about the dying Barkis: ‘He’s a going out with the tide’, and then explains: ‘People can’t die along the coast, except when the tide’s pretty nigh out. They can’t be born, unless it’s pretty nigh in – not properly born, till flood’.143 Hence, we have the common phrase: ‘To go out with the tide’, a euphemism for death. Interestingly, we come across exactly the same belief on the other side of the world in Australia. In Healers of Arnhem Land, John Cawte recounts the various prophetic dreams experienced and told to him by a Yolngu woman in Arnhem Land. She explained to him that whenever she dreamt of the tide going out, it signified someone’s death according to her people’s tradition.144 

In many European countries, it was traditional until well into the nineteenth century for a close relative to be given the honour of inhaling the last breath of the dying person, as this was believed to imbue the living person with great spiritual strength. The same custom was already observed two thousand years earlier in ancient Rome, where the closest relative was permitted to inhale the last breath of a dying person and thus benefit from its perceived spiritually nourishing qualities.

In Europe and Asia, the belief was widely disseminated that a dead person’s soul departed through the chimney, the smoke hole, or the roof. Therefore, German superstition advised taking three tiles off the roof if someone in that house was labouring with death. Similar beliefs prevailed in the East. The Chinese made a hole in the home’s roof wherein someone lay dying to give the soul an easy exit. In prolonged death agony, one or more boards or tiles were removed or the roof even broken. 

A widely prevalent belief propagated that locked doors, knots, or bolts hindered the soul from leaving the body when the person was at the point of death. Hence, it was customary to throw doors and windows wide open and to undo all knots and bolts, thereby making the struggle between life and death easier. A German belief intones: ‘When a person dies, set the windows open, and the soul can get out’. In his Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Edwin Radford writes that this superstition was still prevalent in the rural areas of northern Europe in the 1950s.145 Knots were especially believed to interfere with the process of dying, and it was firmly believed that someone could not die while any knots were around or on the person. 

The curious notion that a person’s favourite clock stops at the time of their death is widely known and still believed by many in rural Europe and America. The explanation for this belief is most likely because clocks in the past were so temperamental that only their owners knew precisely how to operate them. Hence, if the owner was confined to bed for a lengthy period, the clock most likely wound down and, after a while, expired altogether, perhaps even coinciding with the time when the unfortunate owner took his last breath. In some households, clocks were deliberately stopped and shrouded when someone died to signify that time had stopped with the death. This was also often done to indicate to the ‘angel of death’ that his work there had been completed and that he should leave. After the funeral, all clocks in the household were started up again.

Another widespread tradition concerns prophetic powers attributed to the dying during the period immediately preceding their deaths. This idea probably originated from the belief that when the soul was detaching itself from the body, it had already partly entered the spirit world. It was therefore, so to speak, in the confines of two worlds and consequently perceived to possess great supernatural powers. This tradition is well documented in literature. Shakespeare refers to it in Richard II: ‘Methinks I am a prophet new inspired, and thus expiring do foretell of him’.146 A similar reference is made in Richard III when Hastings exclaims minutes before being led to his execution: ‘I prophesy the fearfull’st time to thee that ever wretched age hath look’d upon. Come, lead me to the block; [...]. They smile at me who shortly shall be dead’.147 This belief is also reflected in the Old Testament when Jacob gathers his sons and says: ‘Gather yourselves together that I may tell you, that which shall befall you in the last days. [...] And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed and yielded up the ghost148 [...]’. 

It was regarded as a good sign if the eyes of the dying person shut on their own at the moment of death. If this had not naturally taken place, attending relatives immediately hastened to close them because a corpse whose eyes remained open was said to be ‘waiting for the next’ – in other words, searching for the next person to die. In modern times, this custom is observed, although the reasons for doing so have become unclear. 

Another important observation to be considered was for the corpse to always be placed with feet facing the door. This, of course, gave rise to the saying, ‘They carried him out feet first’. As only corpses were said to lie with their feet facing the door, orienting a bed normally in that direction in the bedroom was viewed with great apprehension and dire superstition.


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