Omens of death

The Oxford Times: St Mary's Church, Adderbury St Mary's Church, Adderbury

Death has always been an inevitable part of life, but today, more people die in hospital, and undertakers, rather than local women, lay out a corpse. Few people now keep the body in the house until the funeral, so many traditional death rites have disappeared.

As late as 1909, The Oxford Times recorded a death divination which took place on St Mark's Eve in North Oxfordshire. Young people gathered in the churchyard as the church clock struck 11pm, and remained silent until the clock struck one', expecting to see a procession of all the people who would die in the coming year. Freeland children often ran round the church 11 times, but never 12, as that foretold death within the year.

It was said at Leafield that if a corpse did not set' there would be another death in the village within 12 months. Other local omens include crocks rattling, a spider making a ticking noise, two black crows on a line, a knock on the door with no-one there, crickets rapidly leaving a house, a dog howling, the clock striking 12 during the second sermon or hymn (Adderbury), fire burning with a bright hole in the middle (Stoke Row), a coffin shape formed in ironed linen or a loaf of bread, and a candle guttering and the grease spiralling to form a winding sheet'.

It was taboo to wash clothes on Good Friday or New Year's Day, to wash blankets in May, or to seat 13 at a table. People dreaded a picture falling from a wall for no apparent reason, scissors falling point downwards, or a glass ringing (indicating the death of a sailor). Dressmakers avoided accidentally stitching a hair into their work. It was bad luck if the eyes of a corpse remained open, or the corpse stayed in the house over a Sunday, or the funeral had to be postponed. People encountering a funeral procession would walk a little way with it to avert bad luck.

Plants associated with death include flowers with drooping heads such as snowdrops, dead flowers found outside and picked up, red and white flowers in a vase (especially in hospitals where they were described as blood and bandages'), flowers blooming out of season, fruit trees blossoming twice in one year, or out of season, lilac brought in, parsley transplanted or given away, and red hot pokers blooming twice.

Many death omens were associated with birds: birds coming into the house, tapping on the window, flying into a closed window or flying down a chimney, cocks crowing at midnight, crows or owls perching near the house, and a robin perching on a chair.

As late as 1909, The Oxford Times recorded a death divination which took place on St Marks Eve in North Oxfordshire. Young people gathered in the churchyard as the church clock struck 11pm, and remained silent until the clock struck one, expecting to see a procession of all the people who would die in the coming year.

The son of a Minster Lovell family emigrated to America, and when their American clock, which had been silent for years, suddenly struck one', the mother immediately knew her son was dead - and so it transpired.

Occasionally, people see visions of the dead at the moment of death: G H Powell of Stonesfield told a story about a boy called Vic Davies. His grandfather slept in the attic, reached by a staircase from Vic's room. Vic told his mother at breakfast that he had seen his grandfather come down the stairs during the night carrying a lit candle, but the grandfather had been taken to the Woodstock Workhouse Infirmary a few days before. It turned out that the old man had died during the night.

R E Moreau wrote in The Departed Village of a shepherd's wife in Roke who was on her deathbed. A neighbour came by at five o'clock one morning and, as she lifted the latch, a figure in white, resembling the shepherd's wife as she looked when healthy, turned to her and smiled. A few minutes later the shepherd's wife died. The neighbour identified the figure as her spirit which had come for her.

In the Vale of White Horse, one way to ease a person into death after a long struggle was to wrap the dying person in a still warm sheepskin taken from a newly killed sheep. Shepherds were buried with their crooks and a piece of wool to explain to God why they were seldom in church, and some were buried in their wedding smocks.

Some women put aside a wedding dress, a white dress or a nightdress for their burial, and a linen handkerchief to be placed over the face; one woman prepared a nightdress, pillowcase, sheets and pins for her funeral. Women from North Leigh were buried in white stockings instead of their everyday black ones. In 1938, a child who died in the Radcliffe Infirmary was dressed by her mother in her best clothes and a new woollen coat to keep her warm'. Wedding sheets were often reused as winding sheets. One woman in the village would take responsibility for washing corpses and dressing them in their burial clothes. At North Leigh, the coffin was lined with a wreath of every herb growing in the garden - except thyme.

At Shipton-under-Wychwood, a corpse was measured for its coffin using a piece of string: three knots were tied, to indicate the length, width at the shoulders and the width of the hips.

It was important to protect a corpse until the soul had time to pass to the other world: mirrors were covered to prevent the soul being trapped by seeing itself, windows were opened so it could escape freely, and a corpse should never be locked in - at Headington Quarry, they said the house door should remain open until the corpse had been carried out of sight.

Sometimes, green turf wrapped in paper was placed by a dead man's leg, salt was put on the chest, and a candle was kept alight in the room. The eyes were fixed shut, sometimes with coins, as anyone who came within the dead man's sight was doomed to follow him. The coins also indicated the fee required to be rowed to the other world. Sometimes the feet were tied together to prevent the Devil from entering the body. Many people felt that a corpse should not be left alone.

Church bells were rung to announce a death. At Somerton, this was done as soon as a death occurred at one time, but by the early 20th century it took place only between sunrise and sunset - as was more customary elsewhere. In Adderbury, some families claimed the privilege of having the tenor bell rung to announce a death: four peals announced a man and three a woman, and the Invitation Bell was rung for two hours before a funeral. At Banbury, the large bell was rung for a time, then five times for a man, four for a woman, three for a boy and two for a girl - this was known as the Parting Bell. At Lower Heyford and Shipton-under-Wychwood, the corpse was chimed into the churchyard.

Christine Bloxham's book, Oxfordshire Folklore, published by Tempus, is available from bookshops, price £14.99

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