Cemetery Superstitions

One man's superstitions are another man's beliefs. Things that were societal beliefs often become thought of as superstitious over time. Cemeteries are not immune from beliefs that have fallen out of common experience.

One old superstition held that if you buried a first-born infant with the baby's face downwards, the family would never have another child. Strangely, if a person were suspected of being a witch, that person would also be buried face down, in the hopes that the community would avoid further problems with the supernatural.

This did not prevent or end the problems of one village in Hungary, which was suffering from a cholera epidemic. The epidemic was thought to be the work of a witch, who had recently died. As the epidemic raged on after her death, the village exhumed her body to be sure she had been properly buried. Now properly assured she had been buried face down, the villagers felt certain their problems were over.

However, their diligence did not seem to have any effect, so, the presumed witch was dug up yet again. This time, the grave clothes were turned inside-out. The body was again buried. Clothes-turning did not produce the desired effect, and once again the corpse was unburied. The villagers meant business this time, and opted to remove the heart. The heart was then cut into four pieces, and one quarter was sent to each of the corners of the village and burned.

In Northern Ireland, there is an all-male burial ground, and women are not even allowed to visit. It is said, that the dead would rise from their graves to eject an intruder. It seems sometimes the dead are particular about the company they keep.

In the Breton region of France, (Brittany) where a large part of the population is devoutly Catholic, there is a cemetery where over 7,000 "Saints" are said to be buried. Visitors are not allowed to enter this holy place without first removing their shoes. Those who fail to observe this tradition, might find themselves suffering a horrible fate of the stranger. It is believed one stranger who disregarded the warnings, "fell backwards so that his entrails came out."

Other superstitions in many countries held that the last person buried had to act as a watch, guarding over the graveyard until relieved of his post by a newcomer. In some parts of Ireland, the gravedigger would leave a pipe and tobacco for this spectral guardian's comfort during the long watch.

Naturally, the post of guardian was to be avoided if possible, so, when two bodies arrive for interment at the same time, a rush was made by the friends of the deceased in order to prevent their friend from being "last man in." This is, perhaps, especially true in Brittany, where the last to die in the year becomes the "Ankow" of that parish for following year. The "Ankow" is Death itself, and it is he or she who summons the souls of those who are about to die.

It has long been believed that those who are newly dead suffer from a great thirst. The duty of quenching the thirst of the dead was sometimes added to the functions of the watchman. Sometimes, it was also said that this person was tasked to bring water to the souls in purgatory, and cemeteries provided a well to supply the water. Some cemeteries also provided wooden bowls to carry the water.

An old Irish custom dictated that the priest should bless and sprinkle a handful of earth on the corpse before burial, because, it was believed that if this part of the ceremony wasn't done, trouble from the other occupants of the churchyard should be expected. This ritual was not performed for persons who had committed suicide.

The actual soil of a burial-place has always been held to be sacred, imbued in a special way with the remains of the dead. A wide variety of superstitions are associated with this soil, and many believe it could be used for various purposes of magic and witchcraft.

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