Stopping all the Clocks

Stopping all the Clocks

Do you remember old traditions and superstitions relating to funerals?  Many have been handed down for generations, and if you are told them when young, they tend to stick in your brain and become undeniable truths. I was firmly told by my father that if you see a funeral cortège then you must stop whatever you are doing, stand still with head slightly bowed, and take off your hat if you are wearing one. This was a mark of respect and should be followed even if you had no idea who the deceased was. I found myself automatically doing this a few days ago. Other passers-by just carried on. Perhaps some traditions are on the way out, but the Victorians in particular had a whole array of superstitions which had to be seriously borne in mind when someone died.  So what would it have been like for a bereaved and superstitious family preparing for a burial at FHRC in the nineteenth century?

After getting over the initial shock of the death, you had to cover all the windows with thick curtains and let passers-by know of the death by putting black ribbons or a wreath on the door. You then had to take precautions to safeguard the spirit of the deceased. Clocks had to be stopped so as to respectfully mark the time of death and to ward off bad luck, but also to prevent the spirit wandering aimlessly in time and space, unsure where to go; they would be started again for the funeral so that the spirit could leave and not haunt the house.

Next, you had to cover the mirrors. The belief was that when a person died, uncovered mirrors could open up a way for demons to enter the house, or if the spirit of the deceased looked in the mirror they would for ever be trapped in the mirror, unable to move on to Heaven. If a mourner looked at an uncovered mirror they might be the next to die. If there were several deaths in a short time (including animals), you had to take extra precautions…the best way to ward off another death in the family was to put black ribbons all over the home, even including round the neck of a pet.

Moving on, you would make sure that all the photos in the house were placed face-downwards, as this would prevent evil spirits that might appear through a mirror from possessing the body of anyone whose image was in the photo. This might lead to a form of hysteria (which in fact could be a genuine psychological reaction to the loss of a loved one).

Telling the bees

Next, you had to tell the bees. This might be difficult to do in some places, but there was a belief that bees were a link between the physical and spiritual worlds, and they had to be told about important family events such as birth, marriages and deaths, or else there would be bad luck. Bees were generally taken as benevolent creatures (if one flies into your home it’s a sign of good luck) so you had to whisper the news to them, and if you didn’t, then there would be another death. This tradition was especially important on the death of a beekeeper, because if the new beekeeper failed to tell the news and introduce themself to the hive, then they would all leave and never return.

Victorian mourning dress

Quite likely, there would be a vigil in the home for the deceased, with family members suitably dressed in black and veils solemnly guarding the body for a period until the burial, watching in case the person might show signs of life. During this time you had to be careful; if you yawned then there was a danger that an evil spirit might enter your body and possess you. (Nowadays if we are in a boring meeting we might cover our mouth to stifle a yawn, not realising that this isn’t just to be polite, but to prevent evil spirits invading).

On the day itself, the funeral director would take control of certain important issues. He would ensure that the body went out of the house feet first, for otherwise the deceased might be looking back and want to stay and not go to a better place. He might even beckon someone to be the next to die. Pall-bearers must wear white gloves when touching the coffin as this would prevent the spirit of the deceased escaping and becoming lost instead of carrying on to a better place. As mark of respect, the funeral director would walk in front of the hearse at a deliberately slow pace, carrying a cane so that people would make way, and to keep the whole cortege together.

On leaving the house for the service it would be extremely bad luck if you locked the door after you. So houses were left unlocked. And if you were in a hurry, you should never pass a hearse as this would be even worse luck.

At the ceremony clothes should be mostly black. Women might wear a black veil to prevent an evil spirit from seeing them. A definite no-no was the wearing of new shoes. And you should never wear borrowed clothes, as this might endanger the owner of those clothes. A pregnant woman should not go to a funeral, as there would be a danger of miscarriage. The coffin should face east, as that was the direction from which Salvation would come. If there was the sound of thunder at the funeral, it was a sign that the deceased had reached Heaven. Most importantly, you must shake hands with the gravedigger and the vicar, as this would mean you wouldn’t be the next to die.

Even if there hadn’t been a death in the household, superstitious Victorians would still be very aware of traditional beliefs relating to Death. If you heard a knocking at the door three times but nobody was there…someone will die. If a picture inexplicably falls off the wall…someone will die. If an owl follows you…someone will die. If there are two deaths in the family…a third will follow. If you smell roses but there aren’t any in the house…someone will die. When at a cemetery you should never whistle as it will summon the devil, and you shouldn’t walk on a grave as the deceased might come to haunt you. Most difficult of all is the belief that when passing a cemetery you should hold your breath, as otherwise an evil spirit might take over your body.

We might scoff at most of these superstitions, but they were firmly held beliefs by otherwise sensible people who were genuinely frightened of what might happen to them when they died. But times change. Nowadays most people are asked to wear cheerful colours rather than black, celebrants rather than clergy are asked to conduct non-religious ceremonies, and generally people want an upbeat celebration rather than a sad event in a cold church with poorly-sung dirges.

Yet some traditions still strike a chord. You might know the phrase about stopping the clocks not from the old tradition but from the W H Auden poem “Funeral Blues” and subsequently the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” It can be taken as a heartfelt expression of loss and grief, and it is often spoken at funerals as a way for people to accept the death and feel more comfortable about the bereavement; the Victorians’ obsession with traditions and superstitions was perhaps their way of doing the same things.