I was a broken-hearted teenage boy one spring afternoon in early April, in what seems on one hand like only yesterday, and on the other, more like a century ago.
My grandfather, best friend and one person whom I desired to be more like than most anyone else died after a prolonged illness. Unable to rest comfortably in his bedroom, I held back tears as I assisted my father and uncles in moving him down the hall into a guest bedroom where caring for him would be far easier for the family — sadly, he would never again leave that room alive.
In a matter of days we watched what I thought to be the strongest and toughest man to ever live waste away to nothing more than a gasping and broken person. And then at last, the inevitable came, my grandfather died.
Frozen, I sat stoic as aunts cried, uncles left the room and each individual began to face the heartbreaking realization that grandpa was gone.
In what seemed to me to be so bizarre and out of place, I watched as my mourning grandmother stood to her feet, walked over to the grandfather clock that had gone completely unnoticed over the previous days and stop its pendulum. Never again would that ticking clock ever tock again.
Years later, out of respect for her and of that tragic hour, that aged grandfather clock has set silent. But why?
It seems that my story is not too different than many other individuals.
The practice of stopping a clock following the death of a loved one is actually quite prevalent throughout America’s Southland and mountain communities.
One online writer states, “In Victorian times, when someone died in the house and there was a clock in the room, you had to stop the clock at the death hour or the family of the household would have bad luck. Its origin seems to emanate from Germany and Great Britain. They believed that when a person died time stood still for them and a new period of existence started without time. To permit time to continue was to invite the spirit of the deceased to remain and haunt unendingly. Stopping time was a way to allow the deceased to move on.”
Bells were rung at a funeral and bells are the forerunner of clocks. The word clock coming from the word bell, and this would signify a new time period beginning for the deceased.
It wasn’t just superstition, however, that led many family members to stop the clocks following the death of a loved one. It was also done in order to provide a time of death for the local coroner.
As you can imagine, there are countless other mountain superstition concerning death.
In addition to stopping clocks, a similar custom requires the living to cover all the mirrors in a home following the death of a loved one. There is debate as to why this is done, as some argue it is so that mourners do not have to see how they look when they are in mourning and can then feel free to mourn peacefully; however, others say that it is to “allow the spirit of the newly deceased person to cross over into their new life successfully and to keep them from getting trapped in this life. It was once believed if the soul of the newly departed saw their reflection in the mirror, they would become trapped and not be able to leave to begin their afterlife. This might cause the spirit to stay and haunt all who remain in this world.
Another superstition said that the next person who sees themselves in the mirror will be the next person to die. Mirrors were covered so no one would see their reflection. Typically, mirrors remained covered until the funeral. After the funeral they could be uncovered.
There is also a widely held belief that when the deceased is placed onto a stretcher to be taken out of the home, they should always be taken out the door feet first. If they are taken out of the home head first, this will allow them to “look” back into the home and beckon someone else still living in the home to join them in death.
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