Superstitions are actually beliefs we hold without any true or rational basis; beliefs that may be exaggerated or quite simply false. Of course superstitions exist for all aspects of life – love, luck, weddings money, theatre, weather and particularly, death. They are passed on from person to person, generation or generation. Call them old wives tales, folklore or prophesy, superstitions foretell or fore sway future events.
Cemeteries, as we know, are the last resting places of the dead and the word cemetery actually derives from the Greek meaning “sleeping place”. Because of their association with the dead, cemeteries are the subject of considerable superstition; notably in how to appease the dead and prevent them from returning.
The service road into and around the cemetery also carries superstition about it. These roads, usually wind in and around the cemetery leading to the chapel of rest, crematorium, crypts and columbarium. They were traditionally known as corpse roads and their initial purpose was to confuse the spirits of the dead so they could not find their way back home.
Cemeteries follow a prescribed layout catering to traditional beliefs and well held superstitions. For example, Christian graves must face east as that is the direction from which Jesus will return as the rising sun, even though there is no specific biblical direction in this regard. This custom is still observed in cemetery planning today although this directional bias is being phased out as cemeteries become more crowded, making it now a question of catering for additional internments rather than observing tradition. In Judaism, it is customary for Stones of Remembrance to be placed on gravestones by family and friends visiting the departed. This is done as a show of respect because, as a general rule, flowers are not placed at Jewish graves. Flowers are fleeting: the symbology inherent in the use of a stone is to show that the love, honour, memories and soul of the loved one are eternal.
A few other superstitions to ponder: never take flowers from a grave or point at a funeral procession as these actions are harbingers of bad luck. Do not leave the grave side before the casket is lowered as this portends another death and rain on an open grave indicates bad luck will befall the deceased’s family. Finally, never visit a cemetery at midnight as you might come across the guardian spirit, the Devil or the local youth contingent drinking red wine and reading either Edgar Allan Poe short stories or Stephen King novels.
Cemeteries are both fascinating monuments to social history and eerie cities of the silent populated by the dead where the superstitions surrounding them may be the best way to maintain cautionary commonsense practices to avoid one’s own early grave.