Aging and Death in Folklore


D. L. Ashliman

© 1997-2021

Return to folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.


  1. Aging: realism and resignation expressed in proverbs

  2. Distrust of old people in folklore

  3. Widowhood

  4. Caring for old people

  5. Euthanasia and geronticide

  6. Sacrificing one's grandmother

  7. The old woman in the chest

  8. Disposing of the corpse: a legend that is still alive

  9. Why old people are no longer put to death

  10. Gaining care by trickery

  11. Grandchildren come to their grandparents' aid

  12. When enlightened self interest fails

  13. Inevitability of senility and death

  14. Stages of life

  15. No one wants to die

  16. Death's approach should surprise no one

  17. Attempts to trick Death

  18. Death trivialized

  19. Death as punishment

  20. Excessive grief

  21. Death as a divine release

  22. Related Links

Aging: realism and resignation expressed in proverbs

For most pre-industrial cultures, life's last chapter has been a bitter one. Surviving folklore reflects widespread resignation as to the inevitability of impoverishment, sexual impotence, failing health and vitality, and the loss of family and community status. No one expected the impossible. Such euphemisms as "golden years" and "senior citizens" did not exist.

Source: Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, vol. 1, cols. 55, 58-60; Simrock, Die deutschen Sprichwörter, pp. 281, 614; Jente, Proverbia Communia, nos. 28, 102.

These proverbs reflect a chapter of life that most of us would prefer to ignore. We do not like to be reminded of our own mortality, and in today's world, institutions such as hospitals, hospices, retirement centers, and funeral homes (euphemisms abound in the language of death!) shield us from the worst of the Grim Reaper's ravages. We cope, or so it might seem, by pretending that death does not exist.

The foolish man thinks he'll live forever
if he stays away from war,
but old age shows him no mercy
though the spears spare him.
Cattle die, kinsmen die,
one day you die yourself;
I know one thing that never dies --
the dead man's reputation.
Source: Poems of the Elder Edda, translated by Patricia Terry, pp. 13, 21

It has not always been so. In the religion of the ancient north, even the gods were mortal. For example, Balder -- the Norse god of light and joy, and the son of Odin and Frigga -- was killed by a spear of mistletoe (according to Snorri Sturluson) or by a magic sword (according to Saxo Grammaticus). His death, we read in The Prose Edda, "was the greatest misfortune ever to befall gods and men." Other Nordic gods were also vulnerable. Loki, the infamous trickster, challenged the mighty Thor to wrestle his aged foster-mother, an old crone named Elli. Much to Thor's chagrin, the old woman beat him, but -- as Loki later explained -- the trickster had temporarily placed Thor under the spell of old age, and "there never has been, nor ever will be anyone (if he grows old enough to become aged), who is not tripped up by old age." In fact, none of the deities will be spared. According to Norse mythology, all the gods will be killed by the forces of evil on the day of Ragnarök (also known as the Götterdämmerung -- "Twilight of the Gods" -- perhaps best known now through Richard Wagner's opera).

Our ancestors coped, from the evidence of mythology and folklore, by directly confronting the debilitation of age and the inevitability of death.

Distrust of old people in folklore

In spite of the numerous tales and proverbs celebrating the wisdom of old people and promoting their care, folklore is replete with reflections of a basic distrust of age. Various demonic personages, notably changelings and the devil himself, can be rendered powerless by tricking them into revealing their age. More significantly, in pre-industrial Europe superstitions abound that cast suspicion at old people, especially women. Proverbs and popular superstitions state the claim succinctly:

Source: Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, vol. 4, col. 1105. Simrock, Die deutschen Sprichwörter, p. 554; Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, vol. 3, items 58, 380, 791, 938, 1015.

Further, the sinister nature of old women is reflected in numerous folktales, for example:

An old woman, promised a pair of shoes by the devil if she could bring discord to a happily married couple, told the wife that she could increase her husband's love by cutting a few hairs from his chin. She then told the husband that his wife was plotting to cut his throat while he slept. The man pretended to sleep. Seeing his wife silently approaching with a razor, he struck her dead with a stick.
Source: Retold from "An Old Woman Sows Discord," Ranke, Folktales of Germany, no. 66. Type 1353.

Such tales help explain the widespread superstition, documented above, that if the first person you saw in the morning was an old woman, you would have bad luck. A curious variant on this view is the belief that meeting a virgin or a priest first thing in the morning also would bring bad luck, whereas meeting a whore would bring good fortune. Germans formerly believed that old people had the power to attract vitality from young people, but this -- of course -- came at the expense of the latter. The fear of oldsters (especially females) is further reflected in the fairy tales of many countries, where old women (even those who at first appear to be helpful and kindly) frequently turn out to be sinister witches. Even in those instances where an old person helps the hero or heroine, the aid is often suspicious, and the old person rarely shares in the reward.

Sources: Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, vol. 3, p. 440, item 177. Bächtold-Stäubli, Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, vol. 1, col. 324.


For a selection of folktales featuring widows who are too eager to remarry following the death of their husbands, see the following file: Widows in (Short-Lived) Mourning. Folktales of Aarne-Thompson types 65, 1350, 1352*, and 1510.

Caring for old people


Widely distributed proverbs express with obvious irony and apparent acceptance the view that parents cannot necessarily expect the same care in their age that they earlier tendered to their children:

This pessimistic view is also reflected in animal fables:

A raven was carrying his chicks, one at a time, from an island to the mainland. In mid flight he asked the first, "Who will carry me when I am old and can no longer fly?"
"I will," answered the young raven, but the father did not believe him, and dropped him into the sea.
The same question was put to the second chick. He too replied, "I will carry you when you are old," and the father also let him fall into the sea.
The last chick received the same question, but he answered, "Father, you will have to fend for yourself when you are old, because by then I will have my own family to care for."
"You speak the truth," said the father raven, and carried the chick to safety.
Source: Retold from Tolstoy's Fourth Reader (1872). This tale, type 244C*, is found primarily in Eastern European and Yiddish folklore. Other examples include: "A Fable of a Bird and Her Chicks," Weinreich, Yiddish Folktales, no. 12; and "The Partridge and Her Young," Gaster, Rumanian Bird and Beast Stories, no. 95.

Euthanasia and geronticide


Every culture has its own folk medicine: rituals, practices, and preparations believed to cure illness and preserve good health. However, not all health related rituals are directed at the patient's recovery. For example, numerous European superstitions -- still extant in the nineteenth century, and possibly later -- claimed to help the mortally ill die faster and easier. From a purely medical perspective these were harmless acts. Removing roof tiles or simply opening windows was widely believed to speed death by giving the departing soul an easier exit. Similarly, some advised filling every hollow space in the house, thus denying the reluctant soul a hiding place. Other acts -- for example, taking away a dying person's pillow, cutting a scrap from one's clothing, or not allowing one to clinch one's thumb in one's fist -- were more intrusive, but still relatively harmless.

Sources: Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, vol. 3, p. 448, no. 439; p. 457, no. 664; p. 459, no. 721; p. 472, no. 992; p. 474, no. 1053. Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (1880), vol. 2, p. 89, nos. 273-276. Kuhn Sagen, Gebräuche und Märchen aus Westfalen (1859), vol. 1, p. 47, no. 126.

However innocent these moves, their intent was clear to all concerned, and without doubt they sometimes may have set the stage for more aggressive acts. Such symbolic responses not only reflect a resignation with the inevitability of death, but they also claim -- indirectly but still clearly -- that it is the survivors' prerogative to assist the natural process of dying when it becomes evident that the time is right. Ancient Europeans had little sympathy for the infirm. To "die at the right time" was not a value first invented by Nietzsche's Zarathustra. Jacob Grimm, in his German Legal Antiquities, lists numerous examples of lethal acts against the aged in pre-Christian Germany. Suicide, self-sacrifice in battle, abandonment, and outright execution are among the solutions applied by our European forebears to those who lived too long.

Sources: Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 1, ch. 21. Grimm, Deutsche Rechtsaltertümer, vol. 1, pp. 669-675.

On the other hand, folklore not only contains survivals of these primitive lethal acts against the aged, but it also celebrates old people's wisdom and calls for their continuing care. This ambiguity reflects a fragility in the relationship between the generations that his been with humankind throughout all of recorded history. Hanns Bächthold-Stäubli explains this apparent cultural contradiction by giving a double definition of the word "old." In the more primitive stages, he claims, "old" designated people between 35 and 60 years of age, and these indeed were given special status and privilege. However, once a person became senile and could no longer contribute to family and society, he was pushed from his position of honor, and even executed or abandoned.

Source: Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, vol. 1, col. 328.

In times of war, forced migration, or famine the temptation to do away the weakest members of a group would be especially great. A saga contains the following description of a famine in Iceland in the 10th century (circumstances which, coincidentally, led to the Norsemen's colonization of Greenland and their discovery of America, some 500 years before Columbus): "Men ate ravens and foxes, and many loathsome thinges were eaten which should not be eaten, and some men had the old and helpless killed and thrown over the cliffs."

Source: As quoted in Jacqueline Simpson, Everyday Life in the Viking Age (New York: Dorset Press, 1987), p. 40.

One of the Grimms' German Legends (no. 454) tells how, in the eighth century, a community fleeing from enemy soldiers buried one of their old women alive to keep her from being taken captive. They carried out the fateful task while chanting "Creep under, creep under, the world is too sorrowful for you; you can no longer follow the commotion." In their commentary to this legend, the Grimms document two additional instances of ritualistic killing of the aged. In each of the Grimms' three examples the geronticide was accompanied by a ritualistic chant, which suggests that these had, to at least some extent, not only legitimized, but also formalized the killing of their aged.

Karl Haupt, writing in the mid nineteenth century, gives a particularly dramatic (and relatively recent) example of socially sanctioned European geronticide in Lausitz, a region in today's Southeast Germany. Himself a German, Haupt is quick to emphasize that this shameful custom was practiced by Slavic groups living in this region. His account follows:

During heathen times the Sorbian Wends of Lausitz practiced the shameful and gruesome custom of ridding themselves of their old people who were no longer able to contribute. When , a father would be struck dead by his own son A son would strike his own father dead when he became old and incompetent, or he would throw him into water, or he would push him over a high cliff. Indeed, there are many examples of this, even after the advent of Christianity. For example:
Herr Levin von Schulenburg, a high official in Altmark, was traveling among the Wends in about 1580 when he saw an old man being led away by several people. "Where are you going with the old man?" he asked, and received the answer, "To God!" They were going to sacrifice him to God, because he was no longer able to earn his own sustenance. When the official grasped what was happening, he forced them to turn the old man over to him. He took him home with him and hired him as a gatekeeper, a position that he held for twenty additional years.
Source: Karl Haupt, Sagenbuch der Lausitz, Zweiter Theil (Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Engelmann, 1863), p. 9.

As a final survival of this gruesome custom, Haupt cites a Wendish ritualistic folk song, apparently still being sung as late as the mid nineteenth century:

Old man, go to sleep!
Young man, find a wife!
Throw stones at the old man,
And apples at the young ones;
Old man, go to sleep!
Young man, find a wife!
Source: Haupt, p. 10. Karl Haupt's source is Leopold Haupt and J. E. Schmaler, Volkslieder der Wenden in der Ober- und Niederlausitz (Grimma, 1841), vol. 2, p. 94. The German text of the song follows:
Schlaf, Alter, ein!
Junger du mußt frei'n!
Nach dem Alten mit den Steinen,
Nach den Jungen mit den Äpfeln;
Schlaf, Alter ein!
Junger du mußt frei'n!

Other primitive cultures

Abandonment of the sick or the aged by primitive peoples, especially those with a nomadic culture, is well documented and reflects the harshness of life endured by many of our forebears. An Eskimo story, for example, can begin, in a matter-of-fact tone: "One Winter there was an old woman who was left behind ... with only a few insects to eat." Similarly, a Chiricahua Indian myth tells how tribal members concluded that a certain old woman was "good for nothing" and hence decided to abandon her. Alone, she wept to the Mountain Spirits, and they performed a ceremony that cured her of her ailments. She returned to her people and shared with them the healing ceremony, which became a part of their culture. The myth thus explains the origin of a certain healing ritual, but it does not directly criticize the practice of abandoning an old, infirm tribal member to certain death.

Sources: Lawrence Millman, A Kayak Full of Ghosts: Eskimo Tales (Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1987), p. 184. Margot Astrov, American Indian Prose and Poetry (New York: Capricorn), pp. 211-212. See also Harry Hoijer, Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache Texts, The University of Chicago Publications in Anthropology, Linguistic Series. (Chicago, 1938), p. 33.

Sacrificing one's grandmother

One of the crassest examples of disregard for the aged is found in many folk versions of the medieval jest "Unibos." (type 1535). An episode frequently contained in this immensely popular tale describes how the hero-trickster unremorsefully sacrifices his aging mother or grandmother. Asbjørnsen's and Moe's "Big Peter and Little Peter," summarized below, is typical:

There were two adult brothers, both named Peter, one rich and one poor. Wealthy Big Peter maliciously killed his poor brother's only calf. Little Peter skinned the animal and then went from farm to farm trying to sell the hide, but never with success. Overtaken by nightfall, he gained lodging from a farmer's wife, who -- as Little Peter soon discovered -- was "making merry" with the village priest while her husband was away. The farmer unexpectedly returned, and the priest hid himself in a chest. Armed with this information and his own quick wit, Little Peter traded his calf skin for the chest and then extorted a small fortune from the captive priest.
Back at home, Little Peter showed his rich brother the unbelievable sum that he had received for the hide. Big Peter, filled with greed and envy, immediately slaughtered all of his own cattle and rushed to market with the hides, but instead of wealth, he found only ridicule and scorn. He returned home, swearing to strike his brother dead that very night. Little Peter heard the threat and saved himself by changing sleeping places with his old mother. Thus, when Big Peter tried to carried out his threat against his brother, he chopped off his old mother's head instead.
Little Peter then hatched a plan to use the old woman's corpse to further enrich himself. He put her body on a sledge, balanced the severed head on her neck, and dragged her to market where he set her up as an apple seller. Her first customer was a quick-tempered fellow who, insulted because she would not respond to his questions, gave her a slap, literally knocking her head off. Little Peter, by now quite good at extortion, collected a substantial sum from the would-be apple buyer in return for not reporting him to the authorities.
As if this were not enough, Little Peter returned home and showed Big Peter the money their old mother's body had brought at the market. The greedy brother, we are told, had an old stepmother, and he killed her outright, taking the body to market hoping for a similarly high price. But instead of money, he received only scorn and threats of arrest. Other tricks follow, tricks that ultimately cost Big Peter and his wife their lives and leave Little Peter a wealthy man.
Source: East o' the Sun and West o' the Moon, pp. 336-345.

This story of primitive justice offers no apologies or regrets for the fact that the hero not only tricks the villain into killing innocent people -- his wife and stepmother -- but also quite consciously sacrifices his own innocent old mother for his own well being.

Note: Another example of a type 1535 tale containing the episode of the intentionally sacrificed old mother or grandmother (here called a "great grandmother," presumably to emphasize her advanced age, and hence her dispensability): "Der Schelm von Mols" ("The Trickster from Mols" -- Denmark), Bødker, Dänische Volksmärchen, no. 23. In some tales of this type the grandmother's murder is repressed. The storyteller lets her die of natural causes or accidentally, but the hero still uses her corpse to extort money from others. Examples: "Little Claus and Big Claus," Andersen, Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, no. 2; "Master Sly" (Luxemburg), Bødker, Hole, and D'Aronco, European Folk Tales , pp. 99-102. In still other versions, the trickster hero uses his wife in a similar fashion. For example, in "The Peasant Pewit," (Ranke, Folktales of Germany, no. 51) the little peasant, threatened by enemies, exchanges clothing with his wife, thus tricking them into killing her instead of him.

The old woman in the chest

Only slightly less crass, applying twentieth-century standards, than Little Peter's mortal exploitation of his old mother is the tale of the woman in the chest (type 1536A), also a story of how a poor man becomes wealthy at the hands of a rich man, using an innocent old woman (usually the hero's own mother) as a sacrificial pawn. The Chilean version "The Miserly Rich Man and the Unlucky Poor Man" is typical of versions found throughout Europe and beyond.

A rich man suspects, with justification, that his poor brother is stealing food from him. To gain evidence, he puts his old mother into a chest, which he asks the poor man to safeguard for a few days. From her hiding place the old woman does indeed hear her poor son boasting about stealing a cow from his rich brother. Startled, she breaks her silence, and the poor man opens up the chest. Upon discovering the spy, the poor man jams a great chunk of hot meat and a piece of bread into her mouth, and she chokes to death. The rich brother reclaims his chest and finds his dead mother inside. Not knowing how she died and obviously fearing any official investigation, he takes the body to his brother and pays him a substantial sum to bury it. The poor man takes the money, but only pretends to bury the corpse, using it instead to extort more and more money from his miserly brother.

Source: Pino-Saavedra, Folktales of Chile, no. 45. Additional examples: "Die Geschichte von der Metzelsuppue," ("The Story of the Meat Soup" -- Swabia), Zaunert, Deutsche Märchen seit Grimm, no. 23; "The Artful Lad" (Sweden), Booss, Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales, pp. 208-220; "The Woman in the Chest," Ranke, Folktales of Germany, no. 52; "Wie ein Frau dreimal beerdigt wurde" ("How a Woman Was Buried Three Times" -- Ukraine), Mykytiuk, Ukrainische Märchen, no. 35; "Die gestohlene Sau" ("The Stolen Sow" -- Austria), Haiding, Märchen aus Oberösterreich, no. 19.

Tales of type 1535 and 1536A thus turn the hostility felt by members of different socio-economic classes and different generations toward each other into morbid jokes. Freud, in his famous essay Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (chapter 3, section 3) noted that a common function of jokes is to provide verbal outlets for "brutal hostility, forbidden by law." Anecdotes of the types discussed above playfully depict the killing of old people and the use of their corpses for the betterment of their offspring. These tales thus continue to reflect feelings of hostility toward the aged long after civilization has developed safeguards against the literal killing of people deemed too old to be of further use.

Disposing of the corpse: a legend that is still alive

These stories not only turn the exploitation of the old into a joke, they also make light of problems encountered by the survivors in disposing of the corpse. These tales thus reflect the attitude that an old person can, at the same time, be both an expendable resource and a troublesome burden. This latter feature has given rise to an entire family of tales generically called "Disposing of the Corpse" (type 1536). An Icelandic version entitled "The Woman that Was Killed Four Times" is particularly revealing. It relates how a woman killed her old mother-in-law (who lived with her and her husband) and then set the body in a kneeling position over her husband's treasure chest. The husband thinks the "intruder" is a burglar and stabs her. Recognizing the corpse as his own mother, he enlists his wife's help to dispose of the body. The younger woman twice again sets up similar tricks. Thus, she can rid herself of her aging mother-in-law only after she has had her "killed" four times.

Source: "Die viermal getötete Frau," Schier, Märchen aus Island, no. 43."

The image of the aging parent as a troublesome burden is only thinly veiled behind the curtain of slapstick in these tales. And indeed, similar motifs are still extant in the active folklore of the twentieth century. "Disposing of Grandmother's Corpse" is still a popular theme in European and American folktales.

Note: Jan Harold Brunvand gives numerous examples, with interpretations, of this and related urban legends in The Vanishing Hitchhiker, ch. 5. See also Alan Dundes, "On the Psychology of Legend," in American Folk Legend; A Symposium, Wayland D. Hand, ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), pp. 33-36. The legend was built into the popular film National Lampoon's Vacation starring Chevy Chase.

"The Stolen Corpse," collected in 1963 in England is typical of versions told throughout Europe and America. This story, like most of its counterparts, claims to be true. Its pedigree, following the tradition of legends, is established in the tale's opening sentence: "This story was told me by my cousin, who had heard it from a friend in Leeds, about a couple whom he knew, who went for a camping holiday in Spain with their car." The account, retold below, continues:

They took his stepmother with them, and the old woman died one night in her tent. Not knowing how to deal with the foreign bureaucracy, they rolled the corpse up in a tent and tied it to the roof of their car. However, at their first coffee stop someone stole the car. Thus they returned to England without their car and without the stepmother. However, they were unable to prove her death for their inheritance.
Source: Briggs and Tongue, Folktales of England, no. 48.

The "stolen corpse" legends are exemplary in their economy. The burden (perceived or real) of an old person, nearly always a woman, on her family is concentrated into a single symbolic event, their inconvenience at having to deal with her corpse while on a family vacation. The problem always has the same solution -- theft. Here is poetic justice: The antisocial elements that normally cause us anxiety and grief at last bring us relief, and they in turn will have to answer the embarrassing and potentially threatening questions about the corpse in their luggage. However, getting rid of the old dependent does have a price: the family car and tangled legalities concerning her will and insurance.

Why old people are no longer put to death

Although "geronticide" as a linguistic expression is not nearly as common as "infanticide," survivals of such a practice occur in the folktales of many lands, classified as type 981 and generically called "The Killing of Old Men," as the intended victims of these legend-like tales are nearly always male. Such stories, in the tradition of believed legends around the world, typically open with a sparse matter-of-factness, describing the purposeful killing of old people as if everyone knew that such acts were formerly necessary for the survival of the community. However, as these stories usually make clear, these views were selfishly short-sighted. The following tale from the Ukraine is typical:

Once it was so on earth that the old people were killed. When a person got old they take him and kill him. "He is old," they say, "what good is he? Why should we feed him bread for nothing?" However, one son had pity on his father and instead of killing him, as required by law, he hid him in the cellar and continued to feed him. A famine came to the land and the people ate all the stored grain, even that which had been set aside for seed. The old father, seeing the great need, told the son to thresh the straw from their roof and to plant the seed thus gleaned. The son did as he was advised, and the seed grew immediately, miraculously yielding a quick and bountiful harvest. Everyone saw that it was the old man's wisdom and God's blessing that brought the unexpected crop, and from that time forth people have been allowed to die their own death.
Source: "Why Today People Die Their Own Death" (type 981, Mykytiuk, Ukrainische Märchen, no. 30).

This story, which has universal social utility, is told around the world. European, African, and Asian versions differ with respect to the nature of the problem solved by the old man, but the moral of the story remains constant: Take care of your old people. Their knowledge, wisdom, and experience are an invaluable resource for the next generation.

Notes: For additional examples of type 981 tales see "The King and the Thief" (Lithuania), Range, Litauische Volksmärchen, no. 57; Folk-Lore, vol. 29, pp. 238 ff.; M. Gaster, "The Killing of the Khazar Kings" (Romania) Folk-Lore, vol. 30 (London: Folk-Lore Society, 1919), pp. 136-139; "Killing of the Old Men" (Romania) Folk-Lore, vol. 32 (London: Folk-Lore Society, 1921), pp. 213-215; "The Mountain Where Old People Were Abandoned" (Seki, Folktales of Japan, no. 53); "An Old Man's Wisdom Saves the Kingdom" (Arewa, Northern East Africa, p. 180). For a study of this tale type see Paudler, Die Volkserzählung von der Abschaffung der Altentötung.

Proverbs, too, extol the wisdom of age and admonish youth to honor it:

Sources: Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon, vol. 1, cols. 55, 56, 62, 1503; Jente, Proverbia Communia, nos. 181, 182, 525.

Those who fail to give the honor and respect due to their elders cannot expect the approbation of fate, a belief dramatically, illustrated in "The Old Man and the Three Young Men," one of La Fontaine's best known versified fables:

An Old Man, planting a tree, was met
By three joyous youths of the village near,
Who cried, "It is dotage a tree to set
At your years, sir, for it will not bear,
Unless you reach Methuselah's age:
To build a tomb were much more sage;
But why, in any case, burden your days
With care for other people's enjoyment?
'Tis for you to repent of your evil ways:
To care for the future is our employment!"
Then the aged man replies --
"All slowly grows, but quickly dies.
It matters not if then or now
You die or I; we all must bow,
Soon, soon, before the destinies.
And tell me which of you, I pray,
Is sure to see another day?
Or whether e'en the youngest shall
Survive this moment's interval?
My great grandchildren, ages hence,
Shall bless this tree's benevolence.
And if you seek to make it plain
That pleasing others is no gain,
I, for my part, truly say
I taste this tree's ripe fruit to-day,
And hope to do so often yet.
Nor should I be surprised to see --
Though, truly, with sincere regret --
The sunrise gild you tombstones three."
These words were stern but bitter truths:
For one of these adventurous youths,
Intent to seek a distant land,
Was drowned, just as he left the strand;
The second, filled with martial zeal,
Bore weapons for the common weal,
And in a battle met the lot
Of falling by a random shot.
The third one from a tree-top fell,
And broke his neck. -- The Old Sage, then,
Weeping for the three Young Men,
Upon their tomb wrote what I tell.
Source: La Fontaine, Book 11, Fable 8.

Gaining care by trickery

Proverbial wisdom notwithstanding, old people do not always gain the respect and the care that they deserve. Where ethics and morality fail, trickery is justified. In folktales there is no trickier fox than an old fox. The fox's cousin, faced with destruction, can also be clever.

Old animals trick their masters

Animal fables, one of the oldest and most honored genres of folklore, have been used for centuries to expose social injustice and to promote ethical behavior. A younger generation's care for the aged is a topic that has not gone unnoticed in this genre. The fables often exhibit a cynical view, suggesting that a younger person's moral sensitivity may not be sufficient in causing him or her to care for older individuals. A certain amount of trickery and deception may be required, but -- taking the tales at face value -- in this case the ends do indeed justify the means. Especially if you are the old person whose life is thus preserved.

A farmer intended to shoot a faithful dog, now too old to be of use. But the dog's friend the wolf had a plan. Accordingly, he seized the master's child; the dog pursued and with a pretended struggle rescued the child. The grateful farmer now promised to keep the old dog as long as he lived.
Source: Retold from "Old Sultan" (Grimm, Tales, no. 48, type 101). For additional tales of this type (from Germany, Bohemia, Russia, and Japan) see Old Dogs Learn New Tricks.

Another, even better known, story about old animals who make a good life for themselves through trickery is "The Bremen Town Musicians":

A donkey, a dog, a cat, and a rooster had all grown old and feared for their lives, so they set out for Bremen, where they hoped to become town musicians. That night they came to a house in the woods. Seeing a band of robbers inside, they devised a plan to drive the villains away. The donkey placed his forefeet on the window ledge, the dog mounted the donkey, the cat climbed on the dog's back, and the rooster perched on the cat's head. Then each began to sing. The terrified robbers fled, and the four musicians stayed there from then on.
Source: Type 130, retold from Grimm, no. 27. For numerous additional variants see Ashliman, A Guide to Folktales, p. 28, and Animals in Exile, folktales of Aarne-Thompson type 130.

Significantly, the aging and threatened animals in this famous tale do not even seek refuge with their own people and in their own community. The rural society symbolically reflected in this fable has no safety net for those too old to further contribute. But there is always the hope greener grass on the other side of the fence, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the pie in the sky. The dispossessed farm animals know what the country has to offer them: poverty and death. They, like multitudes of their real-life human counterparts, can hope that the city will be kinder to them. Bremen, residence of bishops, center of trade, and gateway to the world surely can provide opportunity, even for old people whose only resources are naive faith and a willingness to sing for their supper.

The inventor of this fable wisely did not allow the dispossessed animals to find their way to the city, where -- by any realistic standards -- their dreams would have been cruelly shattered. This is not a cautionary tale, preaching exemplary behavior to the aged. This is a fable of fantasy escape, and our heroes find a safe haven in a remote corner of the forest, far from Bremen.

Note: The good citizens of Bremen seem to have lost sight of this detail. One of the city's most photographed attractions is Gerhard Marcks's statue of the four animal musicians located in the courtyard of the Pfarrkirche Unserer Lieben Frauen in the center of the city.

We are apparently little bothered by the fact that their security comes at the expense of another marginalized group, the robbers. We assume, if -- indeed -- we give such ethical details a second thought, that the robbers, like the witch in the Grimms' "Hansel and Gretel," the ogre in Perrault's "Little Thumb," and countless other sinister forest dwellers, came by their wealth dishonorably, and that it is hence legitimate booty for our (temporarily) disadvantaged heroes and heroines.

The old father's pretended treasure

An old man, thinking himself near death, divided his property among his sons. But he did not die, and his sons treated their now impoverished father cruelly. To correct this, he obtained four bags full of gravel, and pretended they contained money he had received in payment of an old debt. Hoping for an added inheritance, the sons immediately became attentive to his every need, making every effort to please him until the day he died.
Source: Retold from "How the Wicked Sons Were Duped" (type 982, Jacobs, Indian Fairy Tales, p. 221. For additional tales of this type from India, Sri Lanka, Germany, and England see Ungrateful Heirs: Folktales of Type 982.

Grandchildren come to their grandparents' aid

The man with the pretended treasure, Old Sultan, and the would-be Bremen musicians ensured their well being in old age through blunt trickery. Another group of stories brings justice to helpless oldsters by awakening a sense of enlightened self interest in the younger generation. The story of "Half a Blanket" is typical:

A man had a father who had grown too old to do anything but eat and smoke, so the man decided to send him away with nothing but a blanket. "Just give him half a blanket," said the man's son from his cradle, "then I'll have half to give you when you grow old and I send you away." Upon hearing this, the man quickly reconsidered and allowed his old father to remain after all.
Type 980. Retold from Glassie, Irish Folktales, no. 24.

A variation on this story, a Hispanic version from the American Southwest, carries the same message, adding the warning between the lines about giving a woman unbridled authority in household matters. The tale starts with the explanation that "in the old days it was not unusual to find several generations living together in one home," then continues:

A woman disliked her old father-in-law who lived with her family, and she insisted he be removed to a small room outside the house. One winter day the old man, who was suffering from hunger and cold, asked his grandson to bring him a blanket. The boy found a rug and asked his father to cut it in half for the grandfather. "Take the whole rug," the father said. "No," replied the boy. "I must save half for you for when you are as old as grandfather." The man quickly restored his old father to a warm room in the house, and from that time on he took care of his needs and visited him every day.
Retold from "The Boy and His Grandfather," Maestas and Anaya, Cuentos: Tales from the Hispanic Southwest, pp. 115-117. Type 980.

The story of the grandfather who is denied his customary place at the family table contains the same lesson of enlightened self interest:

An old man spilled his soup and let food dribble from his mouth, so his son made him sit behind the stove and eat from a wooden bowl. One day the man saw his own son, a boy of four, carving a piece of wood. "This is a bowl for you to eat from when you are old," he explained. He immediately restored the old grandfather to his former place at the table.
Source: Retold from The Old Grandfather and His Grandson (type 980, Grimm, no. 78). For additional tales of this type see Old Grandfathers and Their Grandsons.

When enlightened self interest fails

We all know individuals who knowingly engage in behavior that will ultimately hurt them: the person with poor health habits, with a fiery temper, etc. The knowledge that cruel or self-indulging acts will with time prove costly, unfortunately, does not assure ethical behavior. The following tale of generational abuse illustrates this sad observation:

A man in the prime of life abused his aging father; he would strike him and even drag him out of the house by his hair. When he too became old his son treated him the same way. One day the son dragged him out the door and onto the street. "You go too far!" cried the old man. "I never dragged my old father beyond the gate."
Source: Retold from "Turn About Is Fair Play" (type 980, Pourrat, Treasury of French Tales, p. 163).

There is, of course, always the threat of divine punishment, should a person fail to live up to his or her family and social obligations. And God, if we can believe the evidence of folktales, does indeed move in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform:

A man, about to eat a roasted chicken, saw his aged father coming, and hid the bird so he would not have to share it. After the old man left, the son resumed eating, but the chicken became a toad and jumped into his face, and it stayed there for the rest of his life.
Source: Retold from The Ungrateful Son (type 980D, Grimm, no. 145). The Grimms' source was Johann Pauli, Schimpf und Ernst (1522), ch. 437.

An Eskimo variation, heard in Nain, Labrador, and East Greenland, is even crasser:

An old woman, blind, and lame, asked her daughter for a drink of water. The young woman, tired of tending her old mother, gave her a bowl of her own urine. The old woman drank it, and then asked: "Which would you prefer as a lover, a louse or a sea scorpion?" "A sea scorpion," laughed the daughter, whereupon the old woman proceeded to pull sea scorpions from the daughter's vagina, one after another, until she fell over dead.
Source: Retold from "Old Age" (similar to type 980D), Millman, A Kayak Full of Ghosts, p. 192.

The inevitability of senility and death

"And they lived happily ever after," popular wisdom notwithstanding, is not the standard ending for European folktales. English fairy tales, it is true, often end with this formula, but stories from continental Europe rarely promise their heroes and heroines everlasting life. If their future life is mentioned at all, it will most likely be with a generality such as "and they lived happily until they died," or possibly with the absurdly safe promise that "if they have not died, they are still alive." Continental European folktales neither promise their leading characters life without end nor do they treat death as a taboo, to be mentioned only with euphemisms and with great caution. Death is as much a part of life in European folktales as are birth, marriage, and parenting. Like these other events, it can be painless (even fulfilling) or wrought with conflict and grief. There is probably more folklore emanating from mortals' response to dying and death than any other human experience. Mythology, religion, civilization, and science all offer their explanations and their aid to the dying and to the survivors, and we want more. Folklore too has added its voice in helping us to cope with the inevitable and ultimately the unexplainable final chapter.

Sources: Jente, Proverbia Communia, no. 122 (p. 141). Simrock, Die deutschen Sprichwörter, p. 281. Psalms 90:10.

Stages of life

From Shakespeare's As You Like It (act 2, scene 7):

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.

The Grimms' "The Duration of Life," a tale collected from a peasant in his field in 1840, presents the same pessimistic outcome, but adds a playful teleological explanation:

When God created the world he gave the ass, the dog, the monkey, and man each a life-span of thirty years. The ass, knowing that his was to be a hard existence, asked for a shorter life. God had mercy and took away eighteen years. The dog and the monkey similarly thought their prescribed lives too long, and God reduced them respectively by twelve and ten years. Man, however, considered the thirty years assigned to him to be too brief, and he petitioned for a longer life. Accordingly, God gave him the years not wanted by the ass, the dog, and the monkey.
Thus man lives seventy years. The first thirty are his human years, and they quickly disappear. Here he is healthy and happy; he works with pleasure, and enjoys his existence. The ass's eighteen years follow. Here one burden after the other is laid on him; he carries the grain that feeds others, and his faithful service is rewarded with kicks and blows. Then come the dog's twelve years, and he lies in the corner growling, no longer having teeth with which to bite. And when this time is past, the monkey's ten years conclude. Now man is weak headed and foolish; he does silly things and becomes a laughingstock for children.
Source: Retold from "The Duration of Life," Grimm, no. 176, type 173 (also categorized as type 828). Other versions include: "Man's Years," Daly, Aesop without Morals, no. 105; "The Span of Man's Life," Noy, Folktales of Israel, no. 26.

For more tales of this type see Stages of Life: Folktales of Type 173.

No one wants to die

An old woodcutter, too weary to pick up his load of sticks, exclaimed: "I wish that Death would take me!" Even as he spoke, Death appeared, but seeing him, the old man changed his mind. Now his only request was: "Would you help me lift this load to my shoulders?"
Source: Retold from "The Old Man and Death," Jacobs, The Fables of Aesop, no. 69, type 845.

Death's approach should surprise no one

Death promised a man that he would not take him without first sending messengers. The man's youth soon passed and he became miserable. One day Death arrived, but the man refused to follow him, because the promised messengers had not yet appeared. Death responded: "Have you not been sick? Have you not experienced dizziness, ringing in your ears, toothache, and blurred vision? These were my messengers." The man, at last recognizing the truth, quietly yielded and went away.
Source: Retold from Death's Messengers, Grimm, no. 177, type 335. This was a popular plot for the medieval writers of jests and fables. Lutz Röhrich gives twelve variants in his Erzählungen des späten Mittelalters und ihr Weiterleben in Literatur und Volksdichtung bis zur Gegenwart, vol. 1, pp. 80-92.

Attempts to trick death

One of mankind's most persistent dreams is to postpone death. Folktales describe many such attempts, cloaked in a variety of symbolic garbs. They rarely succeed, not even in the fantasy world of the magic tale. The widespread story of "Godfather Death," retold below in a Swedish version, is typical:

A poor man with a large family could find no one to be godfather for his latest son. Finally Death appeared, and the poor man chose him, saying: "You make no distinction between high and low."
Years later, on the godson's wedding night, Death called him from his bed and took him to a cave where countless candles were burning.
"Whose light is that?" asked the godson, pointing to a candle that was flickering out.
"Your own," answered the godfather. The godson pleaded with Death to put a new candle in his holder, but the godfather did not answer. The light flickered and went out and the godson fell down dead.
We find from this that you can neither persuade nor cheat Death.
Source: Retold from Thompson, 100 Favorite Folktales, no. 18, type 332.

Similar tales include "The Godfather" (Grimm, no. 42) and "Godfather Death" (Grimm, no. 44).

See Godfather Death: Tales of Aarne-Thompson Type 332.

Although death cannot be avoided permanently, there are many folktales that describe temporary respites. The story of the blacksmith who tricked death (sometimes identified as "the devil") is one of the most popular folktales in Europe:

The Lord granted a smith three wishes, and the latter chose a pear tree that would detain anyone who climbed into it, an easy chair that would hold anyone who sat in it, and a bag that would imprison anyone who climbed into it. The devil came to get the smith, and the smith invited him to help himself to some fruit from his pear tree. The devil climbed into the tree and was stuck there. The smith would not release him until he promised to give the smith four more years of life. When the time was up the devil returned, but he made the mistake of sitting in the smith's magic chair, and he had to promise four more years before the smith would release him. On the devil's third visit, the smith tricked him into his bag, and then beat the bag with his hammer until the devil promised to leave him alone.
Later the smith got to thinking that he had perhaps acted unwisely, and he knocked on the gate of hell to make amends. However the devil would have nothing to do with him, so the smith found his way to heaven. He got there just as St. Peter was letting someone in, and the gate was still ajar. The smith made a rush, and if he didn't get in, then I don't know what became of him.
Source: Retold from "The Master-Smith," type 330 (Asbjørnsen and Moe, East o' the Sun, p. 105.) For additional variations on this very popular theme see Ashliman, A Guide to Folktales, pp. 73-75

From a theological perspective, possibly the most interesting aspect of this tale is the cavalier attitude that it demonstrates about agreements made with the devil. The devil of these folktales is not the cunning, sinister, wicked, nearly omnipotent being of traditional religion, but is instead a bungling fool, and one who can be outwitted by a clever mortal. This is not an unusual situation in folktales. In fact, even St. Peter is frequently portrayed as a fool, both in his role as keeper of the gate to heaven and as a contrast to his much wiser companion Jesus.

Death trivialized

Death has become one of the great taboos of the twentieth century. At the most basic level, the level of sustenance, we do our best to hide from ourselves (and certainly from our children) the harsh facts about fried chicken, hamburgers, and bacon. A pet, too old and frail to live much longer, is "put to sleep." At the human level, we are even more isolated from the one final act that we must all experience. Few people die at home. Funeral "homes" turn the act of mourning a "departed" loved one into a sanitized reunion of family and friends. The deceased are not "dead," they have merely "passed on." Euphemisms proliferate.

It has not always been so. Our forebears, young and old alike, frequently witnessed the slaughter of animals (or their capture by predators), and they were not spared the reality of human death. They could not avoid this reality, but they could laugh at it.

Laughter is one of humankind's most basic defense mechanisms. Even in the face of death, we can show our resolve and demonstrate our last bastion of control by doing the unexpected: laughing. Gallows humor, in one form or another, permeates pre-industrial European folklore, even making its way into children's nursery tales and rhymes. Indeed, some critics have claimed that traditional nursery rhymes are preoccupied with death and violence and have hence urged that they be rewritten for a more humane and enlightened era. Consider the following catalog of horrors ostensibly found in traditional children's rhymes by Geoffrey Handley-Taylor, writing in 1952:

The average collection of 200 traditional nursery rhymes contains approximately 100 rhymes which personify all that is glorious and ideal for the child. Unfortunately, the remaining 100 rhymes harbor unsavory elements. The incidents listed below occur in the average collection and may be accepted as a reasonably conservative estimate based on a general survey of this type of literature.

Source: As quoted by Baring-Gould, The Annotated Mother Goose, pp. 20-21.

Nursery rhymes have no monopoly on such tragedies. The following tales are known, in many variations, throughout Europe:

The death of the little hen

The little hen choked on a nut. The cock ran to seek help, but when he returned, the hen had already died. Six mice pulled her funeral carriage, but they slipped into a stream and drowned. The little cock dug her a grave; then he sat down and mourned until he died.
Source: "The Death of the Little Hen" (type 2021, Grimm, no. 80). For additional examples see Ashliman, A Guide to Folktales, pp. 311-312.

An animal mourns the death of a spouse

A flea and a louse were brewing beer. The louse fell in and was killed. A door, a broom, a cart, an ash pile, a tree, and a girl all joined the flea in mourning the louse's death. Then a spring broke loose and drowned all the mourners.
Source: Little Louse and Little Flea, (type 2022, Grimm, no. 30). For additional examples see Mourning the Death of a Spouse: Chain Tales of Aarne-Thompson Type 2022 and Ashliman, A Guide to Folktales, p. 312

The fleeing pancake

A pancake rolled out the door and down the road. Many animals tried to stop it, but it rolled past them all. A pig offered to carry it across a brook. The pancake agreed, and the pig swallowed it in one gulp.
Source: "The Pancake" (type 2025, Norway, Thompson, 100 Favorite Folktales, no. 100). For additional examples see The Runaway Pancake: Folktales of Aarne-Thompson Type 2025 and Ashliman, A Guide to Folktales, pp. 312-313

The day the sky fell in

An acorn fell upon Chicken-licken's head, and she thought that the sky had fallen, so she set off to tell the king. On the way she was joined by Hen-len, Cock-lock, Duck-luck, Drake-lake, Goose-loose, Gander-lander, Turkey-lurkey, and finally Fox-lox. Fox-lox offered to show them the way, but instead he took them to his den, where he and his young ones ate up poor Chicken-licken, Hen-len, Cock-lock, Duck-luck, Drake-lake, Goose-loose, Gander-lander, and Turkey-lurkey, and they never saw the king to tell him that the sky had fallen!

Death as punishment

Bogeys, hobgoblins, and bugbears

An unusual (at least for twentieth-century taste) statue stands guard at in Bern, Switzerland. High on a pedestal at the Kornhausplatz, in the center of the old city, stands an ogre, der Chindlifrässer, surrounded by terrified children. He has captured a half dozen children. They are in his pockets and arms, all awaiting the fate of the one whose head he has taken entirely into his mouth. Since about 1545 this statue has graphically warned Swiss children of the potentially dire consequences of disobedience.

Note: The Swiss children frightened by this bogey included, I presume, my grandfather Johann Aeschlimann (1868-1943) and my wife's great-grandparents Jacob Spori (1847-1903) and Magdalena Röschi Spori (1851-1900). For an account of the legendary background of this statue see Ernst Ludwig Rochholz, Schweizersagen aus dem Aargau (Aarau: Sauerländer, 1856), vol. 2, p. 209.

The Swiss are, course, not alone in their use of such primitive psychological pedagogy. Bächtold-Stäubli, in the index to his Handwörterbuch des deutschen Aberglaubens, lists no fewer than twenty-eight different spirits who punish bad German children, often fatally. England too has its share of bogeys, hobgoblins, and bugbears, one of whom carries the German-sounding name Menschikoff:

Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush! you squalling thing, I say;
Peace this instant! peace! or maybe
Menschikoff will pass this way.
Baby, baby, he's a giant,
Black and tall as Rouen's steeple,
Sups and dines and lives reliant
Every day on naughty people.
Baby, baby, if he hears you
As he gallops past the house,
Limb from limb at once he'll tear you
Just as pussy tears a mouse.
And he'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
And he'll beat you all to pap;
And he'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
Gobble you, gobble you, snap! snap! snap!
Note: "Menschikoff" is probably a corruption of "Menschenkopf" (human head). In some versions of this poem the ogre is named "Wellington" or "Bonaparte." Source: Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock, County Folk-Lore, vol. 5: Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire (London: Folk-Fore Society, 1908), pp. 383-384.

Naughty or disobedient children often meet tragic ends in fairy tales. The Germans have a descriptive word for this sub-genre of cautionary tales: Schreckmärchen (scare-tales). One of the most famous of such stories is the tale of "Little Red Riding Hood" who in many versions -- including the classical telling by Perrault -- does not survive her encounter with the wolf. She disobeys her mother, leaves the straight and narrow path, gets into bed with an unprincipled male, and pays for her indiscretion with her life. Unlike Perrault, the Grimms let their "Little Red-Cap" escape, but not all disobedient children in their collection get a second chance:

A little girl went to see Frau Trude, although her parents told her not to. On the steps she saw a black man. Frau Trude said it was a charcoal burner. Then she saw a green man. "He was a hunter," said Frau Trude. Then there was a blood-red man. "He was a butcher," was the explanation. Finally the girl said, "When I saw you through the window, it looked like the devil with a head of fire." Frau Trude answered by turning the girl into a block of wood, which she threw into the fire.
Source: Retold from Frau Trude (Grimm, no. 43, type 334).

The girl who spoke to the wolf (in Perrault's account) and the girl who visited Frau Trude were adequately warned by their parents but still yielded to temptations that, as it turned out, were fatal. The wolf and the witch in these two stories are believable symbols of real threats to children in any era. The children relaxed their guard and were destroyed by the evils that well-meaning adults had warned them about. In some stories, however, it is not evil per se that takes the disobedient child, but God himself:

There was once a child that was stubborn and did not do what his mother wanted. For this reason God was displeased with him and caused him to fall ill, and no doctor could help him, and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. He was buried in a grave and covered with earth, but his little arm came forth and reached up, and it didn't help when they put it back in and put fresh earth over it, for the little arm always came out again. So the mother herself had to go to the grave and beat the little arm with a switch, and as soon as she had done that, it withdrew, and the child finally came to peace beneath the ground.
Source: Literal translation of The Willful Child (Grimm, no. 117, type 779).

The Grimms derived this story from an oral tradition of miracle stories, legends whose credibility was reinforced both by theology and by sacred relics. For example:

In the church at Lunow, three quarters of a mile from Oderberg, there is a chopped off, dried up hand on display. It is clenched into a fist and holds a switch between its fingers. It comes from a son who in a godless manner had once struck his father. God himself punished him, for when he died and was buried, his hand emerged from the grave. However often they reburied it, it always reappeared. Finally they beat it with a switch, thinking that it would then return to beneath the earth, but that did not help. Therefore they chopped off the hand, put the switch in its fist, and placed it in the church at Lunow as an eternal warning to godless children.
Source: Hand wächst aus dem Grabe" (Kuhn and Schwartz, Norddeutsche Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche, pp. 44-45, no. 46). Essentially the same story describes the origin of a withered-hand relic on display in the village church at Groß-Redensleben, one hour from Seehausen ("Die Hand auf dem Grabe," Temme, Die Volkssagen der Altmark, pp. 48-49, no. 56). According to Temme, this legend also was told frequently in Szamaiten and in Poland.

What can one say about stories so flagrantly cruel? For good or for bad, literary, cultural, and theological traditions have taught us that it is good when a wicked person dies (countless evildoers meet violent ends in folktales, and we shed no tears in sympathy). But can any reasonable person of today see justice in punishment, both before and after death, meted out to the "godless" children in the above tales?

Excessive grief

The Grimms' sentimental, legend-like tale "The Burial Shirt" reflects the belief that excessive mourning would prevent a deceased person from resting in peace:

A mother had a little boy of seven years who was so attractive and good-natured that no one could look at him without liking him, and he was dearer to her than anything else in the world. Now it happened that he suddenly became ill, and God called him home. The mother could find no solace, and she cried day and night. However, soon after his burial, the child began to appear every night at those places where he had sat and played while still alive. When the mother cried, he cried as well, but when morning came he had disappeared. The mother did not cease crying, and one night he appeared with the white shirt in which he had been laid into his coffin, and with the little wreath on his head, he sat down on the bed at her feet and said, "Oh, mother, please stop crying, or I will not be able to fall asleep in my coffin, because my burial shirt will not dry out from your tears that keep falling on it." This startled the mother, and she stopped crying. The next night the child came once again. He had a little light in his hand and said, "See, my shirt is almost dry, and I will be able to rest in my grave." Then the mother surrendered her grief to God and bore it with patience and peace, and the child did not come again, but slept in he little bed beneath the earth.
Source: The Burial Shirt (Grimm, no. 109).

That this belief was not limited to unnamed characters in admittedly fictional tales is evidenced by the following account from northern England:

An old woman still living (1854) in Piersebridge, who mourned with inordinate grief for a length of time the loss of a favorite daughter, asserts that she was visited by the spirit of her departed child, and earnestly exhorted not to disturb her peaceful repose by unnecessary lamentations and repinings at the will of God; and from that time she never grieved more. Events of this kind were common a century ago.
Source: The Denham Tracts, vol. 2, pp. 58-59.

For more tales of this type see The Death of a Child: Folktales about Excessive Mourning.

Death as a divine release

Death, of course, is not always looked upon as punishment. In fact, in many religious stories virtuous people (often children) are "called home," frequently under miraculous circumstances. For these blessed individuals, death is a divine release from the sorrows of this world.

Once there was a poor woman who had two children. The youngest one had to go into the forest every day to find wood. Once a little child helped him gather the wood, carried it to the house, and then disappeared. The child told his mother about the helper, but she didn't believe him. One day the helper child brought a rose and told the child that when the rose was in full blossom he would come again. The mother put the rose into some water. One morning the child did not get up; the mother went to his bed and found him lying there dead. On that same morning the rose came into full blossom.
Source: Retold from The Rose (Grimm, Children's Legends, no. 3). For similar accounts of foretold deaths, see Grimm, German Legends, nos. 263-267.

Religious legends are told throughout the world, and those describing premonitions and forewarnings of impending death are particularly widespread and persistent. Such accounts spontaneously emerge at solemn family gatherings, then disappear when the mood brightens. They surface again when needed -- unrehearsed at other sober occasions, or sophisticatedly refined in universal myths and in the great tragedies of world literature. At their primeval level, these accounts describe only modest miracles: the opening of a flower, the appearance of a bird, the dream of a departed loved one, or perhaps nothing more portentous than an uncanny feeling. They do not claim the power to change the course of human destiny, nor do they offer explanations to life's unfathomed mysteries. Instead, they are expressions of faith in continuity and of hope for justice, even at times when it is painfully evident that, on this earth at least, we do not live happily ever after.

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Revised April 6, 2021.