USC Digital Folklore Archives / Old age
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Old age

Compliment or Curse?

Informant: The informant is Thomas, a fifty-five-year-old man who has lived in Westchester, New York for his entire life. He is a financial consultant for hospitals, has two children, and is of English and Russian descent.

Context: We sat across from each other at the kitchen table in Thomas’s house one afternoon during my spring break from college.

Original Script:

Informant: When I was little, my grandmother always told me about her belief that if I, or anyone for that matter, complimented something in her home, she felt that I wished her dead because I wanted the item. I was at her house one day when I was about twelve years old, and she had just gotten a new coffee table in her living room. I admired it, and she responded, “You wish me dead!” Then she went to my dad and said, “Your son wishes me dead; she wants my coffee table.”

Interviewer: Why do you like this piece of folklore?

Informant: I like this piece of folklore because after she died, my family said that I should be the one to get the coffee table. It’s still in my living room today, and every time I look at it, I smile and recall what she told me.

Personal Thoughts: I think that this piece of folklore is interesting because I had never heard of someone being offended by a compliment, or taking a compliment as a curse. What I like most about Thomas’s story is that his family got involved in accepting and appreciating the folklore after his grandmother had passed and gave him the coffee table. In a sense, the tradition can then say alive through Thomas.

Life cycle
Old age

Joke – “Directions for grandson”

Informant is my mother who was raised in a jewish family and in turn raised a jewish family herself. She belongs to a congregation and tries to instill jewish values on her children. She insists but cannot prove that this is a jewish joke:


A grandmother is giving directions to her adult grandson who is coming to visit.

“First, come to the front door of the apartment” she says,

“I’m in apartment 201. There’s a big panel at the front, press 201 with your elbow and I’ll buzz you in. Come inside the elevator and with your elbow, press the 2nd floor button.” She tells him, “When you get off, my door is there. Hit my doorbell with your elbow and i’ll let you in. OK?”

Her grandson says “Ok Grandma, but why am I hitting these buttons with my elbow?”

She says back “What…. you’re coming empty handed?!”


I think it’s interesting that she considers it a jewish joke, because I agree. The loving-but-demanding grandmother character reminds me of my own outspoken relatives. This is not the first time I have heard this joke from her, but it is a family favorite and we repeat it amongst ourselves in the family. As my mother puts it, “In a jewish family, you never show up empty handed. You just don’t.”

Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays


KM is a student at the University of Southern California studying architecture. She is from Encino, CA and has lived her whole life in Southern California. She comes from two Israeli parents and has a strong Jewish background as most of her family lives in Israel. She attended a private Jewish high school and learned Hebrew over the course of her school career. She actively participates in many holiday traditions and prayer rituals.

Do you have any traditions for birth or death in Judaism?

KM: After someone passes away, we have a funeral that’s called a Shivah that has some traditions or changes specific to Judaism. It is basically where you must bury them immediately after they die, there is no waiting period or planning of a funeral, they have to be buried straight away. Then you sit and pray for them so it is like we have the funeral after they are already put in the ground.

Are there any variations to this?

KM: Well there are exceptions. For example, when my grandfather died we could not have a Shivah for his because he died on Rosh Hashanah, which is a high holiday. You aren’t allowed to have Shivahs when people die on a high holiday because that is respected over death. You are already praying on the holiday anyways as well so you can sit and pray then just not at the site of where the person is buried. It was sad not to be able to have a Shivah for my grandfather but we respect the high holiday and it is an honor to die on a high holiday.


A Shivah has the same significance as a normal funeral but it has it differences to the normal ceremony and reception. The ceremony is a week-long of sitting and praying for the deceased. It is very important to Jewish people that they bury their dead as soon as possible. There is no true reason for it other than what people deduce from the Torah. The Torah says that a body should be buried within 24 hours unless if on a high holiday where you cannot work. It is very specific yet tells no details why.

Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Money Burning Ceremony for Chinese New Year

Informant is a Chinese-Cambodian American from San Jose, California, an area known for its large population of people of Asian descent. This tradition is a part of the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, which is usually a week of festivities in late January.

“So, on the last Saturday of the week of Chinese New Year, um, my family, including all of my uncles, aunts, and cousins gather around a big metal Chinese pot container thing that is lit up by a flame. We sit around it in silence and say prayers to our ancestors, and wish everyone around us good health and fortune for the new year. Once everyone is done doing that, the oldest family member hands out small stacks of fake paper money with Chinese characters and images on them. We each take turns throwing bills of money into the pit, and doing so is supposed to give our ancestors wealth and fortune in the afterlife. This is supposed to help bring good luck to their living descendants. Then, following the burning of the money, there is a feast for the family, but first some food is set out in front of an altar as an offering to the ancestors. That’s about it.”

How long has your family been doing this tradition?

“At least since I was born. I’ve done it almost every year, and my family from out of town will all come together and go to the temple to pray and perform the ceremony. It’s a very distinct memory from my childhood.”


Collector’s Comments:

Being from an Asian-American from San Jose as well, this tradition seems very familiar to me, yet at the same time it is different from the traditions that my family practices. The Lunar New Year celebration is a very big deal in San Jose, and involves a week of prayer at temples, decorations and parades, and feasts to honor the ancestors and bring in the New Year. However, there are many variations in the celebrations, especially between the different ethnic groups. This is an example of one of the many ways in which the holiday is celebrated.

Old age

Boy Who Warmed His Parents’ Bed

There’s one I remember with… uh… this kid used to… in the wintertime, he used to warm up his parents’ bed by… you know, right before bedtime, he’d crawl in it and just sleep there or just lie there for, like… for a little while until it gets warm, so that when his parents go to bed, then the bed will be warm enough for them, you know?



You know, respecting the elders is a very big thing in China, so… so that’s one I remember hearing about a lot. Uh… my parents used to tell it to us a lot, and my older siblings also…. uh, told it, to… to… keep us entertained, I guess, since, you know, there were seven of us kids and not… not a lot of, um, space. And, and also, you know, to teach us to respect our parents and our elders, because, you know, I… we grew up in a very traditional… Chinese… Hong Kong family, so, so that was a very important value to my parents.



It is a very important value in China (and in Confucianism) to respect one’s elders, so it makes sense that the story of a child making the effort to make his parents’ beds more comfortable would be a popular one in China, and that my informant’s parents and older siblings would often tell it to her and her siblings. It is meant to teach children to follow the example of this boy and try to help their parents and elders feel more comfortable in their old age.



For the full version of this story, see #19 in:

“The Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Respect: Their Stories & Verses In Praise.” The Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Respect, Kenyon College,

Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Indian Cremation Ritual

Informant SM is a sophomore studying Biomedical Engineering at the University of Southern California. He is very passionate about philanthropy, specifically helping poorer parts of India and aspires to one day become a doctor. The informant tells me(AK) about an Indian tradition centered around cremation he is fond of and believes many Indian people practice.

SM: It is customary in Indian tradition to cremate someone’s body after they die. And then you take the ashes, and you put it in a place that’s very special to this person.

AK: Wow I think I’ve heard of something similar. What does this ritual mean to you?

SM: It’s a way of celebrating someone even after they have died.

AK: Where did you learn this ritual, and does your family practice it?

SM: I didn’t learn it from a specific person, but it’s just part of Indian culture. I haven’t had a chance to experience it because none of my relatives have died in my lifetime.

AK: Where would you want your ashes to be placed?

SM: Oh wow, that is a tough question (laughs). I guess I’d pick Mount Tambora, you can call it Mount Tam — in San Francisco because it’s this really beautiful hike, and it’s kind of the first hike I went on with my family. Yeah, I guess that’s where I would put mine.

I was definitely familiar with this ritual, but I had never heard the part about placing the ashes in the person’s favorite place. As I asked the question to my informant about where he would like his ashes placed, I began to think about how I would answer that question. It certainly is a very difficult question because it’s so difficult to determine someone’s favorite place. I feel like at this point in my life, I don’t really have a favorite place, but if I had to choose, I think I’d just pick my room in the house I grew up in.


Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Old age

A Death in the Family (Philippines)

Informant: Natasha is a 19 year old girl who grew up in Bangladesh but attended high school in Manila, Philippines and now lives in England as a college student. Her mother is Filipina and her father is British.


Original script: “Okay so my parents met in the Philippines whilst my Dad was working there, but at the time since my Dad was so busy with work and was constantly being called in on the weekends, both my Mum and my Dad would get frustrated at the little amount of time they got to spend with each other. Seeing as though my Mum was rarely with my Dad on the weekends she would often use the opportunity to go see her grandfather who was quite ill during this period, so she’d come along to take care of him as well as bring him medicine. Over time my Dad was quite frustrated with not being with Mum and in a slightly selfish manner was irritated with the amount of time she was dedicating to her grandfather. He then decided to take the initiative and plan a weekend away and so my Mum agreed and they went off. One night in their hotel my parents were lying down in bed and as they are laying there a huge black moth- which both of my parents say to this day was the biggest moth they had ever seen- flies into the room and lands on the wall facing my parents. Immediately my Mum senses and tells my Dad that something feels wrong and both feel very unsettled. 10 minutes later my Mum receives a phone call from her family telling her that her grandfather has sadly passed away. My Mum believes that the moth was a symbol of death and was warning her that her Grandfather was passing. At Filipino funerals it is common for them to be open casket. As my Mum approaches the casket she finds herself crying and blaming herself for being irresponsible and not being there to take care of him. As she apologizes over his body she says her last goodbye by kissing him on his cheek. Now one of the weirdest part of the story is what happens next. To this day my Mum swears that after she kissed him on the cheek her Grandfather cracked a small smile. After all of the events that have happened and the guilt she felt before, she now felt like all was ok as she believes this was a sign of his forgiveness. The end.”

Thoughts about the piece: This story is a great exemplification of how a person’s belief system can be shaped by people, in this case Natasha’s parents. Parents can be a huge influence on their children’s belief systems- most especially in early life where they are likely the single biggest influence. The way that Natasha’s parents believe so strongly in the presence of a supernatural being in this story, most especially her Mother, has definitely influenced the way that Natasha perceives things. To an outsider looking in, you may just think that the moth was a coincidence and that the Grandfather smiling is just something that her Mother convinced herself of in a moment of grief to try to overcome it. However, the fact that this took place before Natasha was born, that she has been told this story countless times since she was very young, and that her mother is someone who she trusts deeply are all factors which shape Natasha’s belief and consequently the way in which she tells the story. She has a deep emotional connection to the story and thus, she tells it as an absolute occurrence.

Something else to note is the Filipino culture that peeks through the story. Filipinos are generally very family oriented and they also have very strong belief in ghosts and superstition. The fact that Natasha’s father is British and was initially skeptical about the whole moth situation and did not look as much into it as her Mother but now completely believes in the supernatural aspect of the story shows how possibly being immersed in Filipino culture and such could have altered his belief system.

Folk Beliefs
Old age

Great Grandmother from Across the Country

*The informant is a grandmother, a wife, has a degree in Art, and has heard, and been involved with, many ghost stories.


Informant: I was born in San Diego, California, and Mum’s family was living back here in Maine. Mum always thought that she was her grandmother’s favorite, although her grandmother probably didn’t have a favorite. In my parents bedroom there was a little alcove where they kept my crib so they could keep an eye on me to make sure I was alright. I remember as a toddler standing up in my crib and seeing this white figure of a older woman walk into the room and it was like she was glowing. She was white, but I could see she was an old woman, and she went to the bed and my mother sat up and they were talking to each other. As I got older I thought it was a dream that I had had, so I never really said anything about it. When I got to be an adult Mum told me about her grandmother that she had loved so much and how when we were in California she woke up one night an there was her grandmother standing by the side of the bed. Mum was talking to her and she said “Grammy, what are you doing here in California? You’re supposed to be in Maine.” And she said, “Well, I wanted to come and see you before I left so that you didn’t worry about me or be sad, and so I could say goodbye.” Then the next morning my parents got a phone call and my great grandmother had died that night– a little bit before Mum saw the figure and talked to her. Mum told me this story and described what she looked like and I went “OH MY GOD! [laughs] I thought that was a dream!”. I described what I thought she looked like and she was said “Well yeah, that was my Grandmother”.

Collector: Was your great-grandmother sick? Was her death expected at all?

Informant: She was quite elderly, but I don’t think she had a lingering illness or anything. We knew it was coming soon but it wasn’t expected. And Mum always thought she was the favorite so she wasn’t really surprised that her grandmother came to say goodbye.


Collector’s Thoughts: I’ve collected many interesting stories from this informant, and although it may not sound the most reliable as it was recorded as a young child, many believe that children are able to see and experience spirits more than adults can. The validation from her mother that this experience really happened helps make the story more believable. I’ve heard many other stories where spirits visit to say goodbye and the fact that her favorite grandchild was not able to say goodbye to her in person may be the reason why she returned- to tie up loose ends. Many ghost stories revolve around that idea of a ghost returning to do something they were unable to do while they were living.

Old age

Vision before death

My informant is an American from New York, whose family originally came from Poland 100 years ago. His grandfather was a baker and his grandmother was a peasant girl.

“In my family, when my relatives are dying, they will always see someone who is dead before them, like they’re calling them. Like when my grandmother died, she saw her husband. (But how do you know about that? They’re dying right?) Yeah, but you know, like, when my grandma was dying, she would say ‘did you see grandpa? Grandpa was here.’ It’s within a few days, that week. And my aunt did that too, ‘I saw Raman’, which is her husband, who died 20 years before. I don’t know, who knows?”

There might be some other scientific explanations on that phenomenon, but I think it also make sense to me that when people are dying their brain uses this way of reasoning to release their fear toward death: there is still a good side about death that you’re gonna meet with your beloved one who has also been dead.


Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Korean Birthday Count

Main piece:

In Korean, the new year counts as a year. So I’m technically nineteen or twenty in Korea.


Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

My mom- when I was younger, I would ask my mom’s age. This was when I was really young. And my answer would always change. And when I realized they were always changing… I asked why. She explained that she gets mixed up about her age because America doesn’t count new years as a birthyear. It’s almost like a communal birthday for everyone. It has to do with renewal, and rebirth, um… like a new year. New year is one of the biggest holidays in Korea. It’s like Christmas and thanksgiving combined. And I think since it follows the lunar calendar, It follows the idea that we change on the same day as well. Like against our will. I don’t identify as twenty years old. To me, it doesn’t make sense, and I guess that’s my american side. I feel 18, if not younger. So, it’s not very particularly special to me other than the fact that it represents how much Korea loves new year. My mom is technically 50, but I think in Korea she’s 53 or 54, I don’t even know. I think Korean’s just love being older than people. It’s so hierarchy based. Even if you’re months older, the younger one has to respect you. If an older person hits you on the train, no one can save you. They’re allowed to because they’re old.


Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

This is performed every new year. When you’re born, you know how in america you’re 0 years old? You’re already a year old in Korea, they count in the womb. And you get another birthday on New years, and then another on your actual birthday. So you’re always one or two years older than your biological age. So my mom would be like “I’m forty!” “I’m forty two!” “I’m forty one!” and I’d be like mom what are you…?

Personal Analysis:

This piece was especially hard to follow- I needed the informant to explain to me time and time again how exactly the years were counted. It reflects an innate belief among Koreans that the elderly should be respected. The older a person is, the more prestige and immediate respect they receive. In American society, women strive to be younger, even going so far as to lie about their age. In Korea, there are traditions put in place to extend the age of a person meanwhile their biological age remains the same. The piece also touches upon the importance placed on the lunar New Year. It is so important that Koreans count it as a year on their own age, and everyone in the country celebrates their birthday with the moon.