Everyone remembers when you were younger and stepping on a crack predestined maternal injury. In fact, there were a lot of stories you heard that would predict harm to people you loved. Everyone also probably had parents or grand parents who told you all sorts of little superstitions. My grandmother always told me never to rock a chair without someone in it, and never to enter a house through one door and exit another. But in this modern age of technology and science can some of these superstitions still exist?
One aspect of these superstitions seems to still exist and have increased in belief as time goes on in pockets of Indiana life[i]. This is the superstition of Death Omens. Like the unassuming crack that would deal harm to your mother when stepped on, Death Omens were believed (and still are apparently) to foretell a passing. While some seem to be vague and unclear as to whom the unfortunate individual is, some seem to point to a specific person.
One realm that, according to my sources, this belief in death omens still holds sway is that of Medical Care Facilities. This, of course, meaning Convalescent Centers, Nursing homes, and other types of medical facilities that are designed to deal with the aging, and ailing members of society. Since this is their focus of care, then it goes without saying that they also deal with the death of residents on a fairly regular basis.
With their almost constant vigil for signs that one of the people under their care are close to passing, it is not surprising that they would find some. While some of them are scientific signs, such as respiration or blood pressure measurements, others seem to fall with the realms of superstition. These death omens, take many forms. They seem to change from one facility to the next, even if the people caring for the residents move from one place to another. But what is interesting about this, other than the frequency in which it has been reported, is that those reporting this are educated individuals with scientific medical backgrounds.
While I was conducting interviews and preparing the stories here, I was discussing this idea with a friend of mine. She, also a medical care provider, related stories of her own. Of course this started fairly innocently, as she was interested in the topic I had chosen to start working on. In the course of our discussion, I related a piece that I had read at that time called Current Superstitions. I. Omens of Death, by Bergen, Beauchamp, and Newell[ii]. She seemed extremely interested in one of the superstitions that they talked about dealing with white horses.
It appears that her grandfather had passed a few years back. But while he was ill, the last week of his illness to be more specific, he started talking to himself. Carrying on whole conversations while no one was in the room with him. Of course this started to worry his family, as they knew that he didn’t have a lot of time left. When they asked who he was talking to, he said he was talking to a white horse that was there in the room with him. Apparently this horse told him that everything was ok, and his family would be kept after and would be fine after he was gone. So when I mentioned this white horse of Bergen, Beauchamp, and Newell, she immediately remembered her grandfather’s story.
They knew, she said, that he didn’t have a lot of time left, but she didn’t realize that the white horse was as wide spread as it apparently was. She thought that it was a personal thing. In the end, this could be the case. Or it could also be that her grandfather was raised with these beliefs and they manifested to him when he was passing. At the end of this discussion she turned me on to a couple of other facilities in which I could turn my attention.
While visiting a friend who was convalescing in a medical care facility, I came to see a pattern emerging from the discussions with staff and residents alike. There seems to be two types of themes that reoccur in all locations investigated. These themes being the spectral visitors, and symbolic omens. Spectral visitation is a spirit or presence that alerts those who see it that death is coming. Alternatively, symbolic omens tend to be obligatory signs, or patterns that predict impending death. These patterns tend to be observations made by the staff such as, “death comes in three’s” and other saying that seem reminiscent of older superstitions. Of course there are other things that operate as symbolic omens.
One such symbolic omen has recently been reported by CNN and probably other news organizations. Oscar the cat, in a medical care facility in Rhode Island, has been said to lay with those residents who are near to passing. According to the AP article on CNN.com, the nursing staff actually looks at Oscar’s behavior and contact family members when the cat apparently senses the end coming[iii]. Does it matter how Oscar knows who is dying or not? I don’t think so, but the fact that he has become an omen of death is an interesting.
Spectral visitation has been more widely reported by local (Indiana) nursing staff and residents. This ghostly visage that acts as a portent of death has a strong history in folklore. Ladies in White, banshees, and others have marked the death of those who see or hear them. Here we are going to talk about three separate spiritual monitors that have been disclosed.
One of these spectral omens comes in the guise of a “Lady in Red”, or so she has been dubbed by the nursing staff that report seeing it. They say that she appears to be a solid figure, approximately six foot in height and brunette. She is called the “Lady in Red”, because to everyone that she appears to she is said to be wearing what appears to be a red dress. To some, it is a plain red dress, to others it appears as if it is just a red sheet wrapped around her body. The color of her clothes seems to indicate warmth; that she comes to those who are passing with compassion and love.
This figure is seen by one member of the nursing staff at a time. It is normally at night, second or third shift, and happens in glimpses. One CNA reported that one night when she was working on her hall, when she looked up and swore she saw someone in red walking in to a resident’s room. She walked down to tell the person that visiting hours were over and found nobody in the room, except the resident. According to her, the resident passed within the week. This is not the last time, she says, that she had seen it. She is not the only one who has reported seeing this; the majority of the staff working at that facility reported seeing the apparition.
While talking to other staff members, it was relayed to me that there was a further superstition that followed the sighting of the “Lady in Red”. It is said that if a staff member sees the apparition, then they must go into the room in which they saw the spirit enter and tie a knot in the end of the bed sheet of the resident. If this is done, then the resident will not pass away during the shift of the one who saw the spirit. This in itself is a way in which the staff member removes themselves from the emotional ramifications of a resident passing away on their watch. Removing this emotionally charged event from their day to day activity helps them deal with the rest of their jobs.
Another facility has reports of a similar phantom. But this spectral harbinger is a little different. The nursing staff here is not the ones who report this sighting; rather it is the residents themselves who verbally report seeing this one. This report comes second hand unfortunately. For those who see it rarely lasts the next two to three days.
This facility has a center court, in which the resident’s room circle, giving the residents a private garden area. Rooms that circle this area have sliding glass doors which lead to outside. It is in the windows of these doors that ailing residents report seeing a figure of a small female child looking in on them. The child is young, blonde, and clothed in white robes or sheet. This, of course, is very similar to reports of the “Lady in White” that had been reported in European folk history. According to the Bergen, Beauchamp, and Newell article, anyone seeing this “White Lady” apparition is destined to die[iv]. The color of her clothing illustrates her more classic role as the precursor of death.
This child, as reported to the staff, appears standing outside the glass door, looking as if she would like to be let in. Some residents have said that the child looks as if she is waving and trying to get the attention of those who could see her. When the resident, reports it via contacting a directly, or via trying to let the girl in, she disappears.
There’s another spirit, rather a set of spirits, which have been seen in another facility. These spirits, again, are reported to be little children. They are reported as a little girl and a younger boy. These children do not enter the facility, like the “Lady in Red”, but are seen outside the doors. This, of course, is reminiscent of the child in the other facility, but these children are not described in the same manner. They are reported as wearing antiquated clothing, and are said to have a dirty and disheveled appearance.
Their appearance, as a couple of vagabond children, is different than the others. However, they appear in the same manner as the child in white. When a resident is close to death, they are seen outside of the building looking in through the doors. It is said that they look as if they wish to be let in. When reported to the staff, the resident normally feels compassion for the children and begs the staff member to let them in. Only the resident sees them.
The majority of these omens, at least the spectral ones, are female. The color of the clothes is also important, in that they each represent compassion, caring, and concern for the people they come for. Red, a color associated with compassion, white is associated with purity and divinity. Death omen superstitions and folklore abound. They come from all aspects of cultures and places. Do these stories differ from the others? No, they all have pieces represented in them.
[i] I say Indiana here because, as to date, I haven’t been able to conduct similar interviews outside this state. All stories collected are, by result, only an example of beliefs of Indiana. Further investigation would show, I believe, that this is a wider phenomenon.
[ii] Bergen, Fanny D., Beauchamp W. M., Newell, W. W. Current Superstitions. I. Omens of Death The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 2, No. 4. (Jan. – Mar., 1889), pp. 12-22.
[iii] Associated Press, When death comes calling, so does Oscar the cat, July 30, 2007 http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/07/25/death.cat.ap/index.html
[iv] Bergen, Fanny D., Beauchamp W. M., Newell, W. W. Current Superstitions. I. Omens of Death