I’ve discussed several types of death omens in previous posts: banshees, dreams, white-robed harbingers, corpse candles, owls, and spectral funerals. Today let us focus on phantom funerals, which appears to be a type of “apparition of the living” and a subset of the tale of sitting in the church porch on New Year’s Eve and watching a procession of those doomed to die in the year to come. It is a frequent theme in the folklore of the British Isles, but is also found in Germany and Switzerland. (Many of the examples below are from Wales.) It may also have something in common with the Scandinavian Vardøger phenomenon, where a living person is heard or seen arriving before they actually do. Only in this case, a funeral is seen before it happens.
Features of phantom funerals include:
- They can only be seen by those with the special gift, so out of several men, perhaps only one will see the funeral See “The Tolaeth before the Burying” below.
- They pass down the middle of the road, so travelers are cautioned to keep to the sides of the thoroughfare.
- Some churches are notorious as the sites of phantom funerals
- Such funerals are sometimes known as “goblin” or “fairy” funerals, supposedly because they are sent by the fairies to unsettle human folk.
- They can be a general omen of a death, which may come within a day, several days, or several weeks.
- They can also be a foreshadowing of a real funeral for a specific person not yet dead. The witness to the spectral event recognizes participants and sees details that are later observed at the real funeral. See “the Teulu, or Goblin Funeral” below.
- There is a similar phenomenon called “The Tolaeth before the Coffin,” consisting of phantom noises of coffin-making. Another post, another time…
Here is a description of “The Tolaeth before the Burying” by the former United States Consul to Wales, Wirt Sikes:
The ‘Tolaeth before the Burying’ is the sound of the funeral procession passing by, unseen, but heard. The voices are heard singing the ‘Old Hundredth,’ which is the psalm tune usually sung by funeral bands; the slow regular tramp of the feet is heard, and the sobbing and groaning of the mourners. The Tolaeth touches but one sense at a time. When this funeral procession is heard it cannot be seen. But it is a peculiarity of the Tolaeth that after it has been heard by the ear, it sometimes makes itself known to the eye also—but in silence. The funeral procession will at first be heard, and then if the hearer stoop forward and look along the ground, it may perhaps be seen; the psalm-singers, two abreast, with their hats off and their mouths open, as in the act of singing; the coffin, borne on the shoulders of four men who hold their hats by the side of their heads; the mourners, the men with long black hatbands streaming behind, the women pale and sorrowful, with upheld handkerchiefs; and the rest of the procession stretching away dimly into shadow. Not a sound is heard, either of foot or voice, although the singers’ mouths are open. After the procession has passed, and the observer has risen from his stooping posture, the Tolaeth again breaks on the ear, the music, the tread of feet, and the sobbing, as before. A real funeral is sure to pass that way not long afterwards. This form of the Tolaeth should not be confused with the Teulu, or Goblin Funeral proper, which is a death-warning occupying its own place…. British Goblins, Wirt Sikes, 1881
In this phantom funeral story, there is an element of “missing time.”
A man was coming home one night, and nearing his home, our Sutherlandshire informant says, when he began to wonder that he was not reaching his house, for he had been so long on the way. But to his surprise he found himself at length in the church-yard, far away from his home, and he could distinctly hear the noise of the spade working among stones, gravel, and soil. He then knew that he must have been brought back by the ghost of a funeral. This man did not see the funeral, nor, apparently, did he feel it, but a woman of the place saw the same funeral that very night, so that there was here proof positive of his having been carried off from near his own house to the church-yard. The Celtic Magazine, Edited by Alexander Mackenzie, et al, Vol. 12, 1887.
While the Tolaeth is alternately heard and seen, the Teulu is apparently more life-like, engaging all the senses and featuring recognizable persons.
Of the Teulu, or Goblin Funeral, a death-portent of wide prevalence in Wales, numberless stories are told. This omen is sometimes a form of the Tolaeth, but in itself constitutes an omen which is simple and explicit. A funeral procession is seen passing down the road, and at the same time it is heard. It has no shadowy goblin aspect, but appears to be a real funeral. Examination shows its shadowy nature. Subsequently a real funeral passes the same way, and is recognised as the fulfillment of the omen. The goblin funeral precedes the other sometimes by days, sometimes by weeks. British Goblins, Wirt Sikes, 1881
Usually the real funeral exactly mirrors the phantom one, as in this example from 1871.
An elderly woman saw lights burning in a local chapel and a crowd approaching. A moment later she found that she was in “the midst of a very large concourse of people, by whom she was jostled and hustled as she said, ‘unmercifully.’ In her eager desire to be quit of the crowd, she pressed through it; but at the gates of the chapel she was intercepted by a huge white dog running before a piebald pony, which reared and kicked so much that the crowd had to surge back. Taking advantage of this temporary clearance, the woman ran forward and past the chapel, only to find stones hurled after her… Three weeks later a funeral took place at Bethesda. The woman and her friends attended it, ad, to their astonishment, a great white dog ran among the people, and caused a piebald pony ridden by a farmer to rear. In the commotion the stones newly placed on the road were scattered, and several of them struck the woman, thus verifying in every respect the phantom funeral she had seen so distinctly.” Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales, Marie Trevelyan, 1973, p. 189
And in this story where a man is stunned to witness a vision of his own funeral:
A farmer living in the Vale of Glamorgan had the weird experience of “seeing his own funeral.” He had been to Cowbridge Market, and was returning home just before nightfall, when he saw a procession coming down the lane leading from his own house to the highway. His horse appeared to be witnessing the same scene, for the animal halted at the entrance of the lane to allow the crowd to pass. The farmer gazed spellbound as the mourning approached, because immediately after the coffin came his own wife dressed in the deep mourning of a widow! She was supported by her eldest son. The crowd passed and vanished, and the horse, scared by the scene, rushed up the lane and abruptly halted at the garden gate. Hearing the clatter of the horse’s hoofs, and fearing the animal was riderless, the farmer’s wife and son hastened out, and were thankful to find the husband safe and unhurt. That night the farmer was unusually moody and silent. He could not help thinking of the strange scene he had witnessed. A few weeks later he was seized with a serious illness, from which his family hoped he would soon recover. “I shall never get up again,” he said, and then he related his recent experience. One of the sons who told me this story said everybody present was unspeakably thrilled. Three days later the farmer died. Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales, Marie Trevelyan, 1973P. 186-87
But sometimes the “goblins” play pranks:
Rev. Howel Prosser, many years ago curate of Aberystruth, late one evening saw a funeral procession going down the church lane. Supposing it to be the funeral of a man who had recently died in the upper part of his parish, yet wondering he had not been notified of the burial, he put on his band in order to perform his office over the dead, and hastened to meet the procession. But when he came to it he saw that it was composed of strangers, whom he had never seen before. Nevertheless, he laid his hand on the bier, to help carry the corpse, when instantly the whole vanished, and he was alone; but in his hand he found the skull of a dead horse. British Goblins, Wirt Sikes, 1881
I’m particularly intrigued by the following story in which a witness captures an artifact from a phantom funeral, echoing stories of mortals bringing back objects from fairyland.
Isaac William Thomas, who lived not far from Hafodafel, once met a Goblin Funeral coming down the mountain toward Llanhiddel church. He stood in a field adjoining the highway, and leaned against the stone wall. The funeral came close to the other side of the wall, and as the bier passed him he reached forth his hand and took off the black veil which was over the bier. This he carried to his home, where many people saw it. ‘It was made of some exceeding fine stuff, so that when folded it was a very little substance, and very light.’ That he escaped being hurt for this bold act was long the marvel of the parish; but it was believed, by their going aside to come so near him, that the goblins were willing he should do as he did. British Goblins, Wirt Sikes, 1881
And this man who did not recognize himself in a goblin funeral vision:
An old man who resided near Llanllwch church, in Carmarthenshire, used to assert in the most solemn manner that he had seen the Teulu going to church again and again. On a certain evening hearing one approaching, he peeped over a wall to look at it. The persons composing the procession were all acquaintances of his, with the exception of one who stood apart from the rest, gazing mournfully at them, and who appeared to be a stranger. Soon afterwards there was a real burying, and the old man, determined to see if there would be in the scene any resemblance to his last Teulu, went to the churchyard and waited. When the procession arrived, all were there as he had seen them, except the stranger. Looking about him curiously, the old man was startled by the discovery that he was himself the stranger! He was standing on the identical spot where had stood the man he did not recognize when he saw the Teulu. It was his own. British Goblins, Wirt Sikes, 1881
Stories of phantom funerals in the United States are relatively rare, although there is said to be one at Fort de Chartres in Prairie du Rocher, Illinois and you’ll find one from Georgia in my previous post on death omens. I have collected another from Crawford County, Ohio in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales. The ghost of a suicide named Weidemire was unhappy with the site of his grave. His ghost knocked on his neighbor’s door and beckoned for the man to follow: Here is part of the story:
Nervy as he is, Mr. Keisling could not obey the summons, which under any and all circumstances during life he would not have refused his old friend and neighbor, whom he had known so well for the last quarter of a century. Closing the door he seated himself, thinking of what had just occurred, and of the meaning of such a strange visit. A loud rap again called him to the door. Forgetting for a moment his late visitor he obeyed the summons, when a sight met his eye that froze him to the spot. The atmosphere was lighted with a strange light for a distance up and down the road, and a funeral procession exactly like the one attending the funeral of his late neighbor was passing his house, only it was going away from the graveyard instead of toward it. For a few moments his eyes were riveted on the strange scene, and in another moment all had vanished. What did it all mean? That was the question that bothered and troubled this sturdy old farmer until in relating his experience to some of his neighbors, the next day he found that they had seen and heard strange things, and, after consulting with each other, it was determined to remove him [Weidemire] at once, hoping in so doing to rest his troubled spirit and relieve his terror-stricken neighbors. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 17 November 1889: p. 16
NOTE: A condensed version appeared in the Pittsburg [PA] Dispatch 28 November 1889, giving “Robert Brehmer” as the neighbor visited by the dead man. The phantom funeral is a well-known motif in folklore. That, coupled with the name change, makes this story suspect.
Told in a very literary style, this vivid tale of a ghostly funeral procession is said to be from the pen of journalist, spiritualist, and psychic researcher W.T. Stead.
The Ghost Procession A Churchyard Vision….Liverpool Post
Having been concerned in a most remarkable and altogether inexplicable adventure recently, which happened to me in Thomas Lane, Knotty Ash, I have been induced, at the earnest solicitation of many friends, to communicate the following particulars of the same to the Liverpool public as being of more than ordinary interest. I was proceeding leisurely on foot to Broadgreen, when, on passing the church at Knotty Ash, my attention was suddenly arrested by the strange and uncanny appearances of its graveyards. The time would then be shortly after midnight. The whole burying ground seemed alive and glistening with a thousand small bluish lights which appeared to creep in and out of the different graves, as if the departed spirits were taking a midnight ramble. I stood petrified, not knowing what to make of it, at the same time experiencing a feeling of horror which suddenly took complete possession of me. Just at this moment the moon, which had hitherto been more or less obscured by a moving panorama of passing clouds, came, as it would seem, to my assistance, giving me for a very short time the benefit of her companionship. And now appeared the most startling phenomenon of all, a phenomenon which caused my hair to stand on end with fright, a cold numbness of horror paralyzing me in every limb, for, advancing up the road directly opposite to me came a funeral train, the coffin borne along with measured tread, covered with an immense black pall, which fluttered up in the midnight wind. At first I thought I must surely be dreaming, and therefore pinched myself in the arm to ascertain if this were really the case. But no, I certainly was not, for I distinctly felt the nip, and was therefore satisfied as to my wakefulness. “What could it all mean?” I asked myself as the cortege gradually approached me and I began to distinguish the general outlines of the bearers. These appeared to be elderly men, and to have lived in a bygone age. All were dressed in the costume of the latter part of the eighteenth century. They wore tie wigs, and some had swords, as well as walking-sticks, mounted with death’s heads. 1 observed only one really young man among the crowd of followers, walking just behind the coffin. His youth, in comparison with the others, perhaps made me take especial notice of him. He was dressed in what appeared to be black velvet, the whiteness of his ruffles standing out in marked contrast to the sombre nature of his general attire. He carried a sword, had diamond buckles in his shoes, and wore his powdered hair in a queue. The face of this young man was deathly pale, as were also the faces of all the others accompanying him. Instead of the procession advancing to the gate at which I stood, it turned suddenly and entered the burial ground by the one situated at a few yards’ distance. As the coffin was borne through this gate all the blue spirit lights seemed to rise from the graves as if to meet the cortege for the purpose of escorting the body to its last resting place. These awful lights added considerably to the ghastliness of the scene as they floated over the coffin and heads of the mourners. Slowly the procession glided up the pathway, passing the main entrance of the church, and, continuing its way in a straight line, finally disappeared at the back of the edifice. Where this most extraordinary funeral went to or what became of it I cannot tell; but this much I distinctly aver, that coffin, mourners, and light—even the pale, flickering moonlight—all disappeared as mysteriously as they came, leaving me standing in the darkness, transfixed with astonishment and fright. Upon gathering together my somewhat scattered senses I took to my heels and never stopped running till I found myself safe in my own house. In fact, I scarcely remember how I got home. After recovering a little from the shock I immediately aroused a female relative, who had retired for the night, and related to her the above particulars. She assured me that I must have been suffering from mental hallucination, but, seeing the great perturbation of my mind, and at the same time knowing my natural scepticism with regard to all so-called supernatural phenomena, she came to the conclusion that after all I might possibly have seen what has been described above. The next day I made inquiries at the neighborhood of Knotty Ash, and ascertained from a very old woman that she remembered a story in her youth having reference to the mysterious and sudden death of an old occupant of Thingwall Hall, who was hastily and quietly buried, she thought, at midnight, in old Knotty Ash churchyard. If so, was this a ghastly repetition of the event got up for my especial benefit? or was it a portent intended to foreshadow the coming of the dread visitor to myself? Now, as I have before stated, I am no believer in ghosts, but certainly this very remarkable experience of mine has entirely upset all my previously conceived notions of the subject, leaving me in a quandary of doubt. On the evening upon which I saw the mysterious midnight funeral at Knotty Ash I was exceedingly wide awake; had met several cyclists on the Prescott road, with whom I conversed, and had likewise refreshed myself at the public drinking fountain placed at the top of Thomas lane. Strange that a few hundred yards farther down the road I should encounter so ghostly an experience—one I shall never forget to my dying day. W.T. Stead Greater Britain [London, England] 15 September 1891: p. 37
Let’s finish with a genuinely faux phantom funeral from a Massachusetts cemetery.
DRIVES HEARSE HOME
Mystery surrounding a ghostly funeral procession seen at Waterside cemetery at midnight gave residents of Marblehead, Mass., a chill up and down their spines until a very simple explanation of the whole affair punctured it of any supernatural trappings. Benjamin Bowden and Albert Peach reported seeing the strange funeral procession. Town health and cemetery department officials said that no permit had been issued for a burial on the day the ghostly hearse had been seen. Investigation revealed that the “ghost” was James Sullivan local undertaker who had been to another town, and returning late at night, thought it simpler to drive home in the hearse. His home happens to be next to Waterside cemetery. Evening Tribune [San Diego, CA] 19 December 1934: p. 4
For more stories of phantom funerals see this excellent post from author Richard Holland.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.