Answer Man

What’s the connection between mirrors and death?


Q: My older sister remembers in 1927 when our infant sister died, the wake was held at home rather than at a funeral parlor. During the wake, all of the mirrors in the house were turned toward the wall, she told me. Ever since, I often have wondered why.

Doris, of Collinsville

A: You don’t have to be a bookworm to know the spell that mirrors have cast over writers through the ages.

Far more than just a humdrum piece of glass to sleepily shave in front of each morning, the idea of something that can show an image of what it “sees” has spurred all sorts of magical possibilities to the creative mind.

It’s an idea that you likely recall from the time you heard your first fairy tales. Remember when the evil queen in “Snow White” asks, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” — and the mirror answers?

Writers have, pardon the pun, often reflected on these potential powers. In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot,” the titular character uses a mirror to see the people of Camelot since she is unable to do so directly. Harry Potter fans will remember the Mirror of Erised, which allows its users to see their desire (Erised spelled backward) rather than merely their image. Fans of The Who know well the mirror’s spell on Tommy.

I found my personal favorite example just after college when my friend Joyce introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions.” In it, we find that our protagonist, Kilgore Trout, calls mirrors “leaks” because he sees them as a hole — or leak — between two universes.

“Sometimes, somebody would say in his presence, ‘Excuse me, I have to take a leak,’” wrote Vonnegut, referring to the common euphemism for urination. “And Trout would reply waggishly, ‘Where I come from, that means you’re about to steal a mirror.’”

But in many cases, a mirror’s power is far more sinister. In “The Reaper’s Image,” Stephen King weaves the tale of a rare Elizabethan mirror in which a person standing in front of it sees the image of the Grim Reaper — and then meets with a ghastly end.

King and the others didn’t make up these stories out of thin air. They come from long-held superstitions dealing with the connection between mirrors and death. It’s a practice that has gone on for centuries in cultures around the world. In German and Belgium, for example, mourners covered mirrors with a white cloth. In various parts of China, mirrors are immediately covered or turned upside down.

“The Sunni Mohammedans of Bombay cover with a cloth the mirror in the room of a dying man and do not remove it until the corpse is carried out for burial,” writes “The Golden Bough” author James Frazer, who says covering mirrors or turning them to face the wall also can be found in England, Scotland, Madagascar and Crimea.

It apparently was a custom brought to the New World before the Revolutionary War. Even in the 1780s, Prudence Punderson depicted it in her famous needlework piece, “The First, Second and Last Scene of Mortality,” which she finished shortly before she died. In it above her coffin, she sewed a mirror draped in a white cloth.

So when Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in the East Room of the White House on April 18, 1865, mourners found “the windows at either end of the room were draped with black barege, the frames of the mirrors between the windows, as well as those over the marble mantles, being heavily draped with the same material,” according to William Coggeshall’s 1865 account, “The Journeys of Lincoln.” “The heavy gildings of the frames were entirely enshrouded, while the plates of the mirrors were covered with white crape.”

Exactly what was the thinking behind the practice? It depends whom you talk to. Some say it is thought that if a person sees his or her image in a mirror after a death, he or she will soon die, too. In documenting the custom in China in 1910, Reginald Fleming Johnston wrote, “If the dead man happens to notice a reflection of himself in the glass he will be much horrified to find that he has become a ghost, and much disappointed with his own appearance as such.”

Moreover, Johnston noted, “Every mirror has a mysterious faculty of invisibly retaining and storing up everything that is reflected on its surface, and that if anything so ill-omened as a corpse or a ghost were to pass before it, the mirror would thenceforth become a permanent radiator of bad luck.”

A 1964 survey of North Carolina customs similar uncovered a range of explanations. Some thought that if the dead’s soul saw its reflection or paintings of land, people or food, it would become distracted and want to remain on Earth. Others believed a soul remained in the home for three days after death and any mirror that captured its image would either tarnish or, worse, reflect a picture of the dead permanently.

Even in 1773, some thought the idea pretty foolish. As Scottish Rev. George Low noted after a visit to the Orkney Islands, “I know not for what reason they lock up all the cats of the house and cover all looking glasses as soon as any of the family dies, nor can they give any satisfactory account of it.”

Yet the practice persists, particularly in Judaism. During shiva, the seven-day ritual of mourning after a death, mirrors often are covered for two reasons: They eliminate any chance of distracting a mourner from concentrating on his deceased friend or family member (e.g., no temptation to check makeup or preen hair). There also may be some historic belief that during shiva, evil spirits may attach themselves to reflections in mirrors.

So, like avoiding black cats or eating ham on New Year’s, your family was merely following an age-old custom in its attempt to avoid further bad luck after your sibling’s death.

Today’s trivia

Of whom did actor Tony Curtis once say, “It was like kissing Hitler”?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: You might be surprised to learn that Harmony Borax owner William Coleman employed his famous 20-mule team for only six years from 1883 to 1889 to drive his product 165 miles from his mine to the nearest railhead. (Actually, it was 18 mules led by two horses.) But the image took on a life of its own when Francis Marion Smith, who bought out Coleman in 1890, decided to use “20-Mule-Team Borax” as the name of his product. To promote it, Smith resurrected the team, much like the Budweiser Clydesdales. Its first stop? The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. The last such appearance was in the 1999 Rose Bowl Parade.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer