Archaic Rituals of Death and Their Meaning

In one of my favorite movies, Fried Green Tomatoes, there’s a scene where the young woman dies and her attendant immediately arises and covers a large mirror and then stops a nearby clock. I’d always been fascinated by this old tradition/ritual and wondered about its meaning. I assumed that these practices must have a reason , but I had no idea what that reason might be.

And then I happened to talk to an old friend who explained the reasons for these “odd” traditions.

Let me tell you about my old friend. Her name is Joyce and she’s in her late 70s now, but was raised in the backwoods Georgia of the 1930s. Translated: It was a land and a time more reminiscent of Victorian America. When Joyce was growing up, she had a little sister named Louise that died at the age of three from whooping cough. Joyce remembers “Granny” rocking the child through the night and praying for her, hoping against hope that the little girl would pull through. It wasn’t to be.

Sometime in the wee hours, the little girl looked up at Granny, smiled broadly and passed on quietly. Later that morning, someone in the family went outside and rang the large bell in the front yard.

“It was almost like morse code,” Joyce said. “The bell was tolled a certain number of times for different things. When Louise died, they rang the bell a certain number of times and everyone knew what it meant. Almost immediately, people started coming to the house to help.”

Joyce said they sent the little girl’s body to the mortician who embalmed it and returned the body to the family, for the wake at home. In preparation for the wake, the mortician brought heavy, deep red draperies into the front room of the old house and hung them over the windows, blocking out all sunlight.

“I’m not sure why they put up those drapes,” she said. “Maybe it was to give a solemnity to the wake.”

During the two days of the wake, the little girl’s beloved dog sat dutifully beside the coffin and emitted a mournful wail. The mourners commented on that lamentable howling, and it left them all with a chill. After the wake, the coffin was moved to the church where a service was held. The child’s body was buried in the church cemetery.

The dog followed the family to the cemetery. Some time later, the dog’s body was found along the road. It appeared that the little girl’s pet had literally laid down and died.

My friend Joyce knows a lot about the old ways and about these old rituals.

When one of her elderly aunts lay dying, a family member sat quietly by the bedside. When the old woman breathed her last, the family member arose and draped a heavy cloth over the mirror and opened the clock’s glass face and stopped the clock.

“I saw someone do that in a movie,” I told Joyce. “What’s that about?”

“The cloth over the mirror is for the protection of the departed,” she said. “It’s believed that the spirits of our loved ones may glance into a mirror and become frightened when they see no one looking back.”

That had a resonance of truth, as I’d heard stories about people with near-death experiences saying they couldn’t see any reflection when they looked in a mirror. Wonder how they knew about that back in the 1930s?

“And the clock was stopped for a much more practical reason,” she said. “The clock was stopped so that the mortician would know the time of death.

There was also a requirement – never to be breached – that a loved one sit with the body until burial. I’d imagine this was a throwback to olden days before medical equipment when the dead occasionally came back to life (much to the surprise of the watcher).

It was all fascinating.

As Tevye sings in Fiddler on the Roof, “because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many years.”

Traditions should be remembered and honored, because oftimes, they were created for very practical reasons.

Note at the bottom of this old tombstone, the macabre reminder, "Reader, you must die." Photo is courtesy of Crystal Thornton, copyright 2009, Crystal Thornton.