Forget ghosts and goblins. Nothing strikes fear quite like death, which is why there are a lot of superstitions about it. Those superstitions are the focus of a book called Death Lore: Texas Rituals, Superstitions, and Legends of the Hereafter.
Author Ken Untiedt is a professor at Stephen F. Austin University and he’s with the Texas Folklore Society.
“Not everybody gets married,” Untiedt said. “Not everybody has a child, or celebrates holidays, but everybody is affected by death, so I knew there was a lot to be done there.”
He wrote Death Lore in 2008 because of the amount of folklore that existed about death. That folklore, he says, exists because people generally don’t know what happens beyond death.
Untiedt joined KERA’s Eric Aasen to talk about some common rituals.
Why we wear black to funerals
“It was originally a means of disguise,” said Untiedt. “It was to hide the living who had gone on after the deceased, so the spirit that had exited the deceased couldn’t lure or locate the living.”
The “feet-first” rule
Prior to becoming a professor, Untiedt worked in law enforcement in Lubbock. He noticed that paramedics would always take dead people out of houses or apartments feet-first.
“I even saw some of them stop and turn the body around,” he recalled.
Why? It originated from an old belief that removing the body feet-first wouldn’t compel the dead to take loved ones with them.
Where coffins originated
Coffins are relatively new, about a couple-hundred years old, and were made of stone.
“Only the very rich were encased in coffins,” he said. “Some coffins were designed to be more secure to prevent grave robbery.”
Others, said Untiedt, were surrounded by booby traps to also prevent grave robbers.
Of course, people do deviate from tradition from time-to-time. In Death Lore, a contributor wrote about a woman who was buried in her 1964 Ferrari.
Other superstitions and traditions
With Texas’ proximity to Mexico, some traditions and superstitions have crossed over. One tale border towns are familiar with is the story of “La Llorona,” or “The Weeping Woman.” NPR’s Codeswitch blog explains:
She had long, dark hair and a covetous heart. The man she loved would not have her, so she took her children in a fit of rage, took them down to the river, and drowned them, one by one. When the man she loved spurned her again, she realized what she'd done. She took herself to the water and threw herself in, to subject herself to the same fate as her children. But heaven would not have Maria, and she was condemned to wander the world in perpetual grief. She is La Llorona — the wailing woman.
The people who have seen her said they can her walking, soaking wet, wearing all white. And she can be heard crying out for the little ones she killed. "Ay, mis hijos!" she weeps. ("Oh, my children!") Some say that she snatches other young children as she walks, mistaking them for her own young children she knew.
Dias de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, is another Mexican tradition that has carried over to Texas and other southern states. Festivities are usually held at the end of October into early November. Participants pray for and honor their loved ones who have died
Ken Untiedt is a professor at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches. He spoke about his book Oct. 29 at the Allen Public Library.