Omens of Death in Folklore & Superstition

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Omens of Death

Omens of death are extremely common throughout cultures and time. After all, what’s more important to our daily routines than the underlying knowledge that we’ll wake up tomorrow? The following bits of folklore show some of the more common and somewhat obscure death omens… it is organized by segments – Animals, Plants, Household Objects, Events, and Supernatural Occurrences (in that order).

Animal Death Omens

Black Cats

The meowing of a black cat at midnight is a sure sign of coming death.

A German superstition states that if a black cat sits on the bed of a sick person, it is a sign that they will die.

If a black cat crosses in front of a funeral procession, someone in the family of the deceased will die in three days.

And finally, if railroad workers see a black cat crossing the tracks at night, it means that at least one member of the work crew will die.

Bees

If bees swarm a rotten tree, there will be a death in the family owning or living on the property within a year. Likewise, bees swarming a house are a sign of coming doom.

Birds & Bats

If a bird flies into your house, there will soon be a death in the family. One of the surer omens of death is a bird entering the bedroom of a sick person and landing on the bedpost.

A white bird or a crow flying against a window at night foretells of a death in the house within a year. A pigeon flying against the window is a sign of death.

Seeing six crows is a sign of coming death. Some believe that a whippoorwill singing near the house is an omen of death, while others believe it’s just means trouble will come.

Seeing two turtle doves together in a tree means death is coming. If a sparrow attacks a swallow and throws it from its nest (on or near a home), a son will be born and a daughter will die.

A woodpecker knocking on the house is a death omen. A peacock feather brought into the house is taunting death.

If a bat flies into the house and then gets away, there will be a death in the family. Kill the bat before it escapes, however, and everyone will be alright.

Owls

If you walk under a tree in the evening and an owl hoots right above your head, it means a relative or friend of yours will die within a year.

If an owl hoots while perched on your rooftop, death will pay a visit. Other parts of the world say that an owl simply hooting in the neighborhood is foreshadowing death nearby.

Chaucer, in fact, said, “The owl brings tidings of death.” Before the death of the Roman emperor, Antonius, an owl was seen sitting over his chamber door.

Dogs

Dogs are thought by many to have a peculiar sense of approaching trouble, and it is thought that dogs, in cases of sickness, know the outcome ahead of time. If a dog is persistent at howling under your window, it foreshadows a death in the house.

Others say that a dog scratching on the floor is an ominous omen.

The howling of dogs in a house with an ill person is a bad sign, but a dog howling with his head lowered is an omen of death.

Other Animals

Rats leaving a house foretells death. Likewise, a mouse running over your foot.

A white rabbit crossing your path is an omen of death to some, while others say that seeing a two white rabbits together at night means a death in the family.

If you dream of a white horse, you will hear of a death before the week is over.

If a groundhog comes to your house, there will be a death.

One of the rarer omens of death is a cow giving birth to twin calves; it means a death in the family.

A shark following a boat or ship is looked on as a sure sign of death for one of the passengers or crew.

Plant & Tree Death Omens

Death will follow the rose that blooms in the house.

If a cedar tree that you have planted dies in your yard, a member of your family will die. Also, death will come to the man who moves a cedar tree, once the lower limbs grow to the length of the coffin.

If a peach tree blooms early, there will be a death in the family.

Omens of Death involving Household Objects

A dish or glass breaking when no one is near it is another sign that there will be a death in the family soon. Breaking a glass while drinking to a toast is a bad omen, and may signal the early death of the person being toasted.

It is an omen of death for a clock to strike, when it has not been running. Also, if a weight in the family clock falls, there will be a death in the family. A clock that strikes 13 prophecies death.

If you wear anyone’s “mourning clothes”, you will have a death in your family. Similarly, putting the clothes of a living person on a corpse means death for the living.

If after drinking a cup of coffee, you see coffee grounds in the bottom of the cup, and they appear in the shape of a coffin, it is a sign of your coming death.

If a stone step of a newly built house cracks, an early death in the family will occur.

If three lamps are put on the same table at once, someone in the household will die within the year.

When a loaf of bread splits completely across the top while being baked, it is a sign of death. One of the more obscure omens of death comes from early settlers of Pennsylvania, who believed that if the clock struck 12 during lunch, and fresh bread was being served, it meant pending death.

You can doom yourself. A commonly known superstition is that opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck. You may not know, however, that to hold an open umbrella over your head indoors is a sure invitation to death.

A portrait falling off the wall is a bad omen, and frequently foretells the death of the subject. A similar superstition says that if the glass on a portrait breaks of its own accord, a death will occur in the family.

The wax dripping down a burning candle is called the “shroud”, and foretells of death toward the person to whom it is directed.

Furniture creaking at night with no apparent cause is a sign of death or illness.

Many believed that a breaking a mirror was a sign of coming death; some specifically believed for the oldest son. Others believed that allowing a baby to look into a mirror before it turned one year old would bring an early demise for the child.

Event-Related Death Signs

Astronomical Omens of Death

Children born during a comet will have a difficult early life, and will be susceptible to early death.

If a meteor falls on a house, someone within will die soon.

People used to believe that seeing a shooting star was an omen of death for someone in their family.

Body

If you sneeze twice when you first get up, you will hear of a death before night.

If you get the shingles, and the sore goes completely around you, you will die.

Children

Some believed that child born with long fingers would die young, while others believed it was simply a sign of a future artist or musician.

If a baby’s tooth first appears in the upper jaw, it is a sign it may die in infancy.

A baby sneezing at the dinner table is a death omen.

Cutting a baby’s finger-nails before it is a year old will bring it to an early grave.

Church & Burial

If rain falls in an open grave, it is a sign there will be another death in the same family before the end of the year.

If there is perfect silence in church while an ill person is being prayed for, that person will die.

If a corpse lies unburied over a Sunday, there will be another death nearby before the week ends.

If the body of the corpse does not become stiff, there will be another death in the family.

Dreams

It used to be said that to dream of your teeth falling out was a sign of coming death.

To dream that you are helping someone dress is a sign of a coming, sudden death.

As stated above, dreaming of a white horse means you’ll hear about a death before the end of the week.

Also, to dream of a white swan foretells a death in the family.

A dream of walking through muddy water is an omen of death.

Dreaming about Judgment Day means death within a month.

It is an omen of death to dream about more than one moon.

Dreaming about old shoes means that you will hear of a death.

If you dream of a coffin, you will marry rich but die young.

Meals

If thirteen people sit down to eat together, one of them will die before the year is out.

If, while eating at the table, a piece of meat falls from your mouth, there will be a death in the family.

Weather

If the sun looks red like blood at the sunset of a a rainy day, an unexpected death will soon occur.

If a rainbow bends over a house, a death will occur inside.

An old saying states that, “A hot May makes a fat graveyard.”

Also, “A green Christmas makes a full churchyard.”

If it is perfectly calm on New Year’s, many old people will die that year.

Weddings

A seamstress who pricks her finger while sewing a bride’s dress, and then stains the dress with blood, means that the bride will die an early death.

If the church bell rings while a preacher is reading a sermon, someone in the congregation will die.

To meet a funeral procession going to or from a wedding is an omen of death. If the funeral is for a male, the groom will die; if for a female, the bride will die.

Spirits, Visions, Doppelgangers, and Corresponding Omens of Death

Visions and Specters

If you see your shadow without a head on New Year’s Eve, it is an omen that you will die within the year.

If the seat someone was sitting in briefly appears to be empty, it means that person will soon die.

A similar superstition is that when the seats of monks or nuns in monasteries are occupied by headless figures, they are about to die.

To see a headless dog, or a spectral black dog, is a sign you will die. To see a spectral black dog with fiery eyes is one of the most certain omens of death. However, if you are able to shoot such a dog with a silver bullet the next time that you see it, the death curse will be broken, so good luck!

Hearing the shriek of an old hag, also called the “hag of the mist” in days gone by, is a bad sign, and means those who see or hear her will die.

In England and Germany, seeing a “woman in white” means that someone you know will soon die.

In Scotland, seeing a dark gray man, or shadow figure, is a sign of coming death.

To see a flame in the floor in front of you is a sign that a sick person in your household may soon die.

To hear a watch-ticking sound in the wall or in a piece of furniture is a sign someone in the family will die.

Doppelgangers

In Scotland, it is a sign you will die if you see a shadowy image of yourself.

In England, to see your Doppelganger clearly, is also a sign that you will die. English poet Percy Shelley spoke to his wife Mary Shelley of having many visions, including seeing his own double. The double was also seen by Jane, a guest of the Shelley house. Shortly after seeing his double, Percy Shelley died.

Spirits of the Living

One European tradition says that to see the spirit of a still-living person is an omen of that person’s death, but only if the face of the spirit cannot be seen plainly.

In New Zealand, it was considered a very bad sign to see the figure of a still-living friend… If the person’s face wasn’t visible, it meant he would die soon. If their face was clearly visible, they were dead already.

Seeing the spirit of a still-living person coming toward you is actually a good sign in some cultures. If the spirit of the living is going away from you, though, it is an omen of that person’s death.

A similar Scottish superstition says that if you see the spirit of a living person in the morning, the person will live a long, good life. To see it in the evening, though, means they will die soon.

Related:
Superstitions About the Dead, Dying, Graves & Cemeteries
Black Cat Superstitions
Bird Superstitions

Also see the Dream Dictionary for more modern interpretations of common dreams.