64 Death Omens: Real or Folklore?
Updated: Jan 11
*Disclaimer*: Take all of these with a grain of salt! Death omens are mostly unfounded, and they don't apply to every situation. If this article uses words such as "you will die", just know that this is according to legend or "folklore", and it is likely not the truth. But isn't it fun to wonder? It's interesting to know what different cultures around the world have conjured up to try and predict death. The fact may be that we just aren't meant to know. But that doesn't stop us from trying. And is something out there trying to help us? That's for you to decide!
After watching Doctor Sleep the other night, I started thinking about how the cat in the movie laid on the bed whenever a patient was going to die. Do animals have an extrasensory perception of when we are going to leave this world? Do they have this for humans, only, or for every species? Why would they gravitate toward us, anyway, if they did know this was going to happen? After all, cats tend to go off on their own and die in solace.
Of course, these questions are unable to be answered. But that's why they are fun to ask! We won't know the answers until after death - and even then, it's possible we won't know anything at all. However, for some masochistic reason, our brains have been wired to question everything around us. Humans have wondered about death as long as people have been dying. And while we've gotten more medical answers about what causes certain deaths through autopsies and the like, it doesn't explain how, for instance, someone across the country sees the lights flicker and knows that their loved one has died.
Is it possible there is something in the universe that energetically tells us when someone is going to die? If there is, can these serve as warnings? What should you do if you see a "death omen"? Are they only there when we are looking for them? All of the aforementioned are possible. Anything is possible. Let's dive into the many superstitions surrounding death and precognition. Keep in mind that most of these are of unknown origin and have likely changed throughout the times and across cultures. This is a complete list of death omens that roughly covers all the wacky (and sometimes inexplicably believable) signs that death may soon be upon you. If they're real or not, well... that's up for you to decide.
Death Omens - Origins
Omens are thought to be telltale signs of the future, and they usually come with a negative connotation (think: the movie, The Omen). As far as I can tell, they originated in folklore. Folklore is often thought of as synonymous with "myth" or "fairy tale", but there is quite a different definition for the word when you look into it:
Folklore consists of "traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people". Only through the way that we have talked about it has it become "an often unsupported notion, story, or saying that is widely circulated". After all, if something doesn't have evidence that isn't purely anecdotal, we shouldn't blindly believe it.
That being said, without proper documentation available throughout our ancestors' history, how are we to know what oral traditions or stories are fact and what are fiction? Aren't all stories based on some semblance of truth? I suppose it's like playing the telephone game. Everything gets a little twisted the more mouths it passes across and the more ears it whispers into. However, there are so many religions and ideologies that are based on even less, and people pour their faith into these practices. Why should we discredit the accounts of people?
The following death omens are hearsay and most likely twisted, but I believe they originated from someone's own experience at some point in time. Whether that be truthful or not can only be decided by the person that first experienced it. In any case, if you see any of these death omens, pay close attention to the happenings in your life soon after. That's not to say you should live in fear, because, as you will see, there are a whole lot of death omens to keep track of.
Let me know what you think in the comments and if you have experienced one of these death omens! Have you experienced something not on this list? Do tell! I would love to have some guests on the How to Bury a Body podcast talking about their own precognitive stories that foretold a death near them. Obviously, we can't get someone that foretold their own death - UNLESS they evaded it that way. But that's not a healthy way of living, in my opinion. Do we want to know our time of death? That's something that is explored in movies and books and research throughout history. Personally, I don't like spoilers.
Now, into the death omens! I am obviously English-speaking, so most of the omens that I have found derive from English-speaking countries or have been adapted into the English language. I will try to list the origins of the death omens as much as possible, but sometimes, you just gotta take it for what it is! Sources can be found in the show notes and at the bottom of the blog post on getcurrant.org.
List of Death Omens
Animals and Insects
If a cat lays at the foot of your bed, death is imminent.
Black cats are often thought of as bad luck, and death is included in that belief.
Black cats crossing the path of a funeral? Another family member will die soon.
2. The Dying Cat
Ms. Hartnoll lived in a massive house and wrote a nonfiction story called "The Haunted Manor House" in 1913. It was included in a 1993 publication of "Mysterious Cat Stories".
In it, she explored the depths of the mansion and ended up in a creepy hallway. In this hallway, she saw a mangled cat. It couldn't walk properly and was missing some appendages. She saw this poor cat three times, and each time someone in her family died.
A single crow is an omen of bad luck.
But a large group of 5 or more (aptly called a "murder" of crows) means that illness or death is near.
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.
Roosters crowing in the middle of the night is thought to be unusual and a sure sign of death.
Dreaming of owls means impending death for yourself or those close to you.
Hearing an owl hoot on your rooftop could mean a death in the household is imminent.
Origin: This is a significant aspect of Native American culture due to owls' nocturnal nature.
A dog can apparently sense imminent death and will sit outside your house and howl a mournful howl.
A bird sitting on your bedroom windowsill and tapping on your glass could mean your death is nigh.
Dead birds that are reoccurring around you are also a sign of death and seen in many movies and stories as bad omens.
9. White Moths
If a sneaky little white moth gets in your house, it may mean death for someone under that roof.
10. Black Butterflies
This death omen changes from one culture to another, but black butterflies are consistently thought of as a sign of impending doom and death.
If it is in the house, a member of the household will die.
Or it may appear after a family member has already left the earth.
Souls of deceased people when they fail to find their place in the afterlife are thought to come back as black butterflies.
It is also part of folklore that witches turn into black butterflies in order to steal food. I don't know what this has to do with death, but it is certainly interesting.
Origin: Brazil, Columbia, Central America, China, and the Caribbean
11. The Deathwatch Beetle
If you hear a deathwatch beetle tapping inside your walls on a sleepless night, death is near.
This sound is associated with sleepless nights beside a dying person and interpreted as an omen of death or misfortune.
You will also hear this death omen described as the sound of a ticking clock coming from the wall or piece of furniture.
Origin: The "Deathwatch Beetle" is a type of beetle that can damage wooden furniture and structures of buildings. They hit their heads against wood to attract mates, and this can cause a tapping nose at night time. Before this was explained, it would seem like a bad omen.
Similarly, if a beetle crawls across your shoe, it is said that death is in your near future.
12. White Horses
If two white horses are pulling the hearse, a death will occur in the town within a month.
One white horse? Also bad. A death will soon occur. You don't get a time frame with that one.
If a white horse is in your stable, you will have good luck.
But if you dream of a white horse, it is a sign of death.
Origin: Maine, England, and Bohemia (Czech Republic)
Pagan deities were once depicted as riding on white horses. This is thought to have influenced these beliefs. White symbolizes all things heavenly or descending from heaven.
13. White Animals at Night
A white animal of any species appearing at night is a sign of impending death.
Origin: Sussex, England
Earth, Sea, and Space
14. The Rose's Bloom
The blooming of a rose within the home or during the fall season is an unusual occurrence and, therefore, thought to be a death omen.
Actually, any flower that blooms out of season could mean death. Therefore, when someone sees this, they sometimes pluck it to try and prevent the death.
Origin: Niagara Falls, Ontario
15. Solar Eclipses
People used to think that solar eclipses were a mysterious disturbance in the sky.
Ancient Vietnamese people thought it was a giant frog swallowing up the sun.
Vikings blamed wolves for gobbling down the sun.
Ancient China thought it was due to a celestial dragon eating the sun.
Ancient Greece thought angry gods were marking the beginning of disasters.
All of these explanations for solar eclipses caused the phenomenon to be known as an omen of death and tragedy.
Origin: Ancient Vietnam, China, and Greece; Vikings
16. Cedar Trees
If a cedar tree dies in your yard, a family member will die soon, as well.
Then, if you try to remove the tree, you will die when the limbs grow to the length of your coffin.
17. Halley's Comet
Halley's comet symbolizes a fiery sword that means war and death.
Comets have been blamed for various disasters, including earthquakes, the birth of two-headed animals, and the black death in England.
Origin: Ancient cultures were baffled by comets, and many people believed that they were messages from gods. They interpreted images from these flying fireballs that they had never seen before and took them as death omens or signs.
18. Tide Ebbs
It is believed that death only occurs when the tide ebbs.
Origin: Along the New England, Portugal, and Great Britain coasts
Funerals, Corpses, and Deathbeds
19. Rain on an open grave
This points to an additional death in the family of the deceased within a year,
or another burial will occur in the same cemetery within three days.
Conversely, a common saying in England is "Happy is the corpse the rain falls on". This belief persists in the US, as well, and interprets rain on a grave in a positive manner.
Origin: Western New York and Maine; England
20. Sun Shining
If the sun shines brightly on someone's face at a funeral, they are next to die.
21. Unburied Corpses
If the corpse is kept in the home past Sunday, someone in the home will die by the end of the year.
If a grave is left open past Sunday, another death will occur on the next Sunday (or, in Switzerland, within four weeks, someone in the village will die).
Origin: Massachusetts and Switzerland
22. Late to the Funeral
If you arrive after the funeral procession starts, another death will occur in the same household as the deceased.
This is likely due to what is deemed impolite, as are several other of these similar death omens mentioned.
23. Unwelcome Early Guests
If you are not part of the mourning party at a funeral, and you enter the church before the mourners, some of the entering party will soon die.
24. Counting Carriages
If you count the carriages (or I suppose cars, these days) of a passing funeral, you will be dead within a year.
25. No Rigor Mortis
If no rigor mortis sets in the deceased body, a second death in the family will swiftly come.
Origin: Great Britain and all across Europe
There are, in fact, instances in which rigor mortis does not occur. Rigor mortis is only avoided when the muscles are manually stretched before it sets in, or the person deceased has little muscle mass and is too frail for the muscles to completely stiffen. This is likely in older people and children. Colder temperatures can also prolong the process and stave off rigor mortis for a bit, allowing superstitious people to take this as a death omen in the meantime.
26. The Last Look
Did the person who died last lay their eyes upon you before they met their fate? You will be the next to die.
Similarly, if the dying individual opens their eyes of their own accord, someone in the family will die soon.
This is likely perpetuated due to the long-standing practice of closing the deceased's eyes after death.
27. Calling Your Name
If your name is the one last uttered by the dying person, you will soon follow in their footsteps.
Origin: New Hampshire
28. Mourning Hat
If you put on the hat of a mourner as someone outside of the funeral, you will become a mourner yourself within the next year. Someone close to you will die.
If you so much as try on a black bonnet, it is a death omen.
29. Muddy Water
More often associated with negative emotions bubbling to the surface, dreaming of muddy waters can be a death omen. After all, some deaths do occur during times of despair.
30. Loved Ones Visit
If you're into the paranormal, you've likely heard tales of loved ones visiting people in dreams. Sometimes, this happens as a way for the person to let you know that they are safely on the other side. Maybe they have something to tell you, or maybe they want to see you before they cross completely over.
It seems obvious, but if you have precognitive dreams, dreaming about death could signal the death of that person in real life. Even dreaming of the death of an unrelated person or animal could mean death is near in your waking life.
Not all dreams mean the same thing, so don't freak out if these happen to you! They could be coincidence come to fruition by a culmination of how you're feeling in your day-to-day life surfacing in your dreams.
Household Items and Tasks
While a corpse or coffin is in the home (presumably for a funeral within the home), all the mirrors (or more traditionally, looking glasses) must be turned facing the wall. This way, you cannot look into them and gaze upon your own reflection. If you do, you will die within one year.
Origin: Most common in Irish Catholic tradition, but extends beyond this
If three people look into a mirror at the same time, one of the three will die.
Origin: Massachusetts and New Hampshire
Breaking a mirror is not only bad luck, but in some cases, a death omen. Doing so will purportedly either cause seven years of bad luck or your death within one year.
Sometimes, it is thought that you will only die if the mirror breaks while your reflection is within it.
Origin: Niagara Falls, Ontario - but widely-known
If a baby looks into a mirror or glass and sees its reflection before it is one year old, it will die.
Origin: Maine and Massachusetts - In Germany, however, this means it will make the child grow to be a proud person.
33. Falling Pictures
If pictures fall off the wall by themselves, the person in the picture will die soon.
If a sick person drops a pair of scissors and the blades stick into the floor, the person will die soon. Maybe don't hold scissors while sick, just to be safe.
Origin: Central New York
If scissors are left on the table with the blades open, it is said that this is the Archangel Michael's mouth gaping open, ready to take the soul of a member of the household.
35. Dishcloth on a Doorknob
A dishcloth hung on a doorknob is a death omen for someone in that household.
Origin: Massachusetts; This likely came about due to the common practice of hanging a piece of cloth on the doorknob after someone passes.
36. Hoe in the House
If you carry a hoe through the house, this is a sign of death before the year's end.
I mean the farming tool, but I suppose this could be interpreted many ways.
37. Split Bread
When you bake a loaf of bread, if it splits across the top, someone in that home will die.
Origin: Ohio; Although, it is a widespread idea over several locations that this indicates the death of a dear friend.
38. Broken Glass
If you break a glass while making a toast, it is a death omen.
It becomes a death omen for the person being toasted.
39. Death Crowns
Masses of feathers 3-5 centimetres in diameter that look like crowns can be found inside an ill person's pillow and mean they will die within three days.
One way to break the omen is to break the crown!
Origin: Appalachia; Some death crowns are in museums today! The largest collection is in the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, TN.
Sleeping with a fan running and the windows closed will cause imminent death.
So many people do this, we must've broken the curse.
41. Sewing Faux Pas
Working on a sick person's dress means that you will die within that year.
Putting a thimble down on a table to take a break from sewing and eat is bad luck. The woman who does so is said to become a widow in the future.
If your clock suddenly stops, your life just might do the same.
Similarly, a clock should be stopped at the time of death. Letting it continue to run will cause bad luck.
If a clock that has long been stopped starts to tick again, this is also thought to be a sign of impending misfortune or death.
Origins: New Hampshire, Germany, and Great Britain
If you hear a bell ring by itself, of its own accord, this may be a death omen.
Origin: Shropshire, England
44. Umbrellas Indoors
You've probably heard that it's bad luck to open an umbrella inside. However, dropping an umbrella inside is supposed to be an omen of death.
If you open the umbrella inside, especially above your head, it can also mean that death is near. This is one of the most "popular" death omens.
Origin: Pennsylvania - but widely-known
45. 13 people sitting at a table
The person who stands up first will die within one year.
Origin: Massachusetts (but changes slightly dependent on where it is told - for instance, the youngest at the table is the one to die in Germany, sometimes).
46. Singing at the Table
If you sing at a table while the rest of the family is eating, a friend will die.
47. Lying on a table
If you lie on a table, you will be dead before the year ends.
Opals were a gemstone denounced as a vessel of evil. It was widely believed that witches used opals to increase their magical powers and focused them on people that they wished to harm.
These gems resembled evil eyes or the eyes of cats and snakes, so they were often thought to be capable of maiming or killing the person wearing one.
The black death was even blamed on opals.
Origin: Opals can shift color and the death omen attribution is likely caused by this. When someone would die with an opal around their neck, their body heat would change and, therefore, the opal would change color.
49. Candles, Lights, and Fire
If you unintentionally leave sparks in the ashes of a fire overnight, this is a death omen. It is possible that this became a belief due to the danger of leaving embers still glowing in a fire that is unattended.
There is also a saying in Shropshire that goes, "It is unlucky to turn coals over when poking a fire, for then you turn sorrow to your heart".
If coals fly out of the fire, it is a death omen for the person whom is in the direction of those sparks.
Origin: Maryland and Shropshire, England; However, in Prussia and Bohemia (Czech Republic), this is just a sign of someone soon to visit.
If you see a coffin shape in a candle's flame, it is supposed to be a death omen.
Origin: Massachusetts; However, this is likely attributed to some black cinder that breaks off in the flame.
If you're sitting on the side of a candle where the wax drips, it is a death omen targeted specifically toward you.
This is popular in the spiritual and paranormal communities, along with using flickering flames to acknowledge a spirit presence.
If a candle flame burns blue, this is also seen as a death omen.
Origin: The flame of a candle burning dimly has signaled doom and gloom, while a blue flame has signaled a spirit visiting. For instance, in Shakespeare's writing, Brutus exclaims, "How ill this taper burns!" as Caesar's ghost enters the scene.
Three lighted lamps in a row are a sign of death in a home.
This can indicate a future funeral, but other places view this as a sign of wedding or greatness.
Origin: Germany, England, and Massachusetts
If an unexplained light is seen in a carpenter's shop, it means that they will soon be making a coffin.
Origin: Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada; This is thought to be because the carpenter will turn on their light when they start hearing tapping in their boards. This is the spirit letting them know of their recent death.
50. Window Shades Falling
If your blinds fall down for no apparent reason, this could be a death omen.
Origin: Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada
Apparitions, Ghosts, and Unexplained Phenomena
51. Death Knocks
There is a well-known, old superstition about hearing three knocks when no one is there. This means that someone has died or is about to die.
These are known as "death knocks" or the "knocks of doom".
This can happen on a wall, door, or window, and you often see this trope in horror movies and stories to signify paranormal activity of a dark entity.
Origin: England; Scottish, Jewish, Indian, Middle-Eastern, African, and Native American beliefs
52. Phantom Funerals
Phantom funerals are mysterious processions of ghosts taking the same route as a future funeral.
Witnesses see it and actually recognize people in it as people in their lives. Then, they recognize the same happenings during the actual funeral later.
Peek in the casket? You'll see your own body inside and die soon after.
Some churches are notorious as sites of phantom funerals.
These ghostly parades are supposedly sent by goblins or fairies to unsettle humans.
You may hear singing songs, sobbing, groaning, and tramping of feet.
There is a belief that these phantom funeral processions can only touch one sense at a time. For example, you will hear it and not see it, or vice versa.
53. Corpse Candles
Corpse candles are mysterious lights in the shape of white, blue, or yellow balls or candle flames that appear outside, floating above the ground.
They are thought to be messengers of doom and death.
They hover over a home of a person who is about to die or halfway between the home of a person and their eventual grave site.
If they are seen around boats of fisherman, those fishermen will soon drown.
Sometimes, corpse candles are seen leading phantom funerals.
Origin: This usually happens in marshy areas and could be "swamp gas". This is also used to explain some UFO sightings.
54. Bodach Glas (The Dark Gray Man)
A dark gray figure of a man, also known as "The Grey Messenger", appears to people in order to signal death.
Origins: Scotland; A report in October of 1861 by Lord Eglinton is the first known sighting.
55. The Phantom Arm
There is a tale of a disembodied limb coming out from the wall and pushing things over.
The person who saw this had a relative who died a few days later.
Origin: 1930s Scotland; unknown source
56. Six-Foot Skeleton
The story goes that a woman, Ms. Coleman, came home on break from work. She saw a six-foot skeleton beside her two neighbors as they were chatting on the front lawn. Within a month, the woman who the skeleton was touching was dead.
Origin: Oakland, California in the 1920s
57. The Headless Horseman
Sleepy Hollow may instantly come to mind, and that's because it was inspired by this legend.
In the mid-1500s, Ewan MacClean was in the midst of a fight with his father over money. He came across a washer woman that was washing clean clothes that ran red with blood in the river.
The rift between father and son divided the Scottish clan and a battle ensued.
Ewan's head was cut off during this battle, but his body was still on the horse. The beheaded corpse returned with the horse, and the people who witnessed this decided to also behead the horse and bury them together.
It is said that the clan is still haunted by Ewan's presence when it is time for one of them to die.
Origin: Scotland in the 1500s (read more here)
58. Woman in White (or a "white woman")
An apparition of a woman wearing all white means death is near for the seer.
Origin: Bohemia (Czech Republic) and second-century Rome
This was thought to be the survival of the death-goddess Morana appearing to those she chooses. The white garments symbolize heaven, or this could be due to the custom of dressing the dead in white. Similarly, dreaming of white garments while sick would mean imminent death for the dreamer (Artemidorus, in an interpretation of dreams).
59. Doppelgangers/Spirit Doubles
Doppelganger translates to "double-walker" in German, and it quite literally means a double of yourself that lives in some other dimension - a literal duplicate of your being.
If you see your doppelganger, it is said that you will be met with death soon.
It is said that Abe Lincoln saw two of himself in the mirror soon after he became president. His wife thought this meant he would be elected to a second term but not survive it, and she was right.
Sometimes, people close to someone that is near death will see a spirit that appears identical to their loved one.
If this happens, don't talk to them! They may try to trick you or plant sinister ideas in your head. It's unknown what their intentions are, but you may not want to find out, just in case.
Origin: England and Germany (read more superstitions about doppelgangers here)
Children that are born with extra long fingers are a sign of an early death.
Similarly, if babies happen to get their first tooth on the top of the mouth, that is a death omen.
Also, if babies have their nails trimmed when they are too young, this is also a sign of death.
61. Sneezing Before Breakfast
If you sneeze before breakfast on Sunday morning, you will hear of a death before the next Saturday ends.
Getting the chills is a sign that someone has walked over your future grave site.
63. Ears Ringing
If your ears are ringing, this rings in your death - sometimes even before the end of that week.
This is sometimes referred to as a "death-bell".
64. Hair Pin Drop
If a bobby pin falls out of your hair, that is apparently a death omen - particularly a death omen of a close friend.
Origin: Several locations
Common Death Omen Themes
As we read through the death omens and speculate about their origins, it becomes clear that they are all inspired by one thing: a fear of the unknown. Whether that is due to not understanding a particular phenomenon or trying to simply justify why someone died, it is clear that humans are searching for answers. Does this take away the legitimacy of death omens?
Here are some other common themes I noticed:
- New England (particularly Massachusetts was recurring... witch trial mania? Why was New England so superstitious?)
- Family members dying around you
Have you experienced a death omen for yourself? Are we missing any that you have heard of?
If you've experienced a death omen first-hand, please reach out to us! You can find us on the How to Bury a Body Instagram and Twitter, as well as contact us at getcurrant.org or comment on the blog. You can also send in a voice memo on the How to Bury a Body podcast page! Just click "message" and let us know your thoughts for a chance to be included in a future episode.