There is a nearly endless list of traditions and superstitions regarding death. This hypothetical list details concerns regarding burial and what comes afterward. Ancient Egyptians believed that what you are buried with joins you in the afterlife, which is why Pharaohs are buried with so much stuff (and why tomb raiders are common). This week’s article describes some practices with which you may not be familiar.
Until the 1930s, shepherds were popularly buried with a tuft of wool in their hand. Due to the high demands of a flock, shepherds would be unable to visit church on Sunday. At the gate of heaven, the wool became evidence that they were shepherds in life. To add additional proof, some were buried with Bibles, hymnals, and even their caskets filled with wool!
Bodies dating from the 13th-17th centuries have been exhumed with bricks in their mouths. The people, at the time, believed the bricks prevented corpses from eating their way back to the surface to prey on the living! The tradition seems to begin in 13th century Germany, where they were known as nachtzehrer (translates to: nightwaster). Nechtzeher were thought to be one of the causes of the plague; their bites causing sickness. But where did this come from? The Archaeological Institute of America explains:
…if a corpse was wrapped in a shroud, putrid gases and purge fluid flowing from the mouth would moisten the cloth so that it would sink into the mouth (which would open as the muscles relaxed after rigor mortis), where the fluids would break it down. So the legend that corpse could eat through its shroud is a real observation that was interpreted without the proper medical knowledge.
– Plague Vampire Exorcism, Samir S. Patel
Folklore, even that regarding the dead rising, often has real-world inspiration. One such inspiration comes from those who were not truly dead when they were buried. It wasn’t always easy to tell, and mistakes happened from time to time, leading to some horrific stories. This led to the rise of “safety coffins”, designed to provide escape for those buried alive.
Many designs have been invented over the years. A popular coffin involved a string attached to a bell above-ground which could be pulled, alerting those tending the graveyard. Other designs were more disturbingly visceral, such as a window to witness the corpse or a tube to check for foul scents. In the case of a Duke’s tomb, it was simply a key to the door in his pocket.