USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘death’
Rituals, festivals, holidays



My informant is a mother of three who lives just outside of Boston with her husband of over 30 years. She is originally from Cape Cod, the part of Massachusetts that is full of beaches and is a world known tourist destination. She is a lover of all thing water; she has worked extensively in water policy and water pollution as an environmentalist.


Interviewee: My dad never did any Christmas shopping for anybody. He always left it all to Mom. As he got older, I guess he got much more free time. He would spend all year going to flea markets. Just searching for Christmas gifts. Sometimes something would catch his eye and he would not even know what it was. The year I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing tennis, I got Tennis For Dummies.

He would just give everyone a massive bag full of stuff. A bag for each person. All this cheap stuff he found at these yard sales and Salvation Armies; sometimes it was thoughtful, but most of it was crap.

It was the worst for the people dating into the family. When Lynn, my sister-in-law, first starting coming to the family Christmas, she got all these random things that no one knew anything about. Weird pieces of wood. A styrofoam ball. But she just took it and said thank you, trying to be polite, while he was just laughing because he knew that he gave crap. But then she surprised us all one year when she turned around and glued it together and created a figurine. Then she gave it to him.

We would come home with so much crap, we couldn’t keep it all, but I do have a farting Santa doll.

Interviewer: What about when he got sick?

Interviewee: When he passed away, we wanted to keep it alive. It was so much fun. We couldn’t all give everyone presents; that was just too much. But we all picked names and gave personalized stockings with funny and outrageous, sometimes nice, gifts to the person.

Interviewer: And you still do it?

Interviewee: Yeah, I mean, no one wanted to give it up. It is hard though. It is all tailored to them. There are no gift certificates. You have to really go out and think about them. It’s nice, even if it is crap. It’s crap tailored for them. Thoughtful crap.


There is so much stress around Christmas. It clearly has become so overwhelmingly commercial and impersonal, that I feel like what her father was doing was almost the anti-version of that. Not to be a hipster or part of a counter culture or whatever, but because that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to give hand picked crap. Just for the joke or shock. Because he was such a strong figure in this family and because he would not stop doing it, it became a tradition.

When he died, that is when it took on a whole new dimension. Not wanting to give him or it up they modified it, so that people kept getting these personalized stockings. Even though he was gone, the stockings and laughter did not have to go. That is most likely the sentimental aspect of it. On a practical level, it is a really good way to make sure that people get gifts for Christmas that feel as though they were personally chosen for them. An added benefit.


Folk Beliefs

Death Means…

The informant was born and raised into the American culture and way of life. Her mother’s side of the family is in touch with their Jamaican culture and heritage and as the informant grew older she was able to become more into with the beliefs and customs of Jamaica.

Jamaican Death Means…


When I asked the informant about different believes in the Jamaican culture this was the first one to come to her head. She said that “death signifies the end of someones physical life, however if someone dies and is said to have “unfinished business” their spirit will not rest. Instead, the spirit roams the earth until it is able to finish it’s business.”

I was then really intrigued by this so I asked her if she had ever witnessed this or knew someone who did and he informant said that her grandmother passed away and a few weeks later the informant’s mother saw her grandmothers spirit or ghost. This was important to the family to know this because it told them that she hadn’t passed on and would watch over them until she was able to continue on. This is a normal thing in there culture, so it is safe to say that this culture believes in ghosts  and spirits waling the earth. This is interesting because it clashes with other beliefs in society.


This culture does believe in ghosts and spirits roaming the earth with unfinished business. This kind of collides with other religious beliefs that the culture may have about God. I didn’t get a chance to ask the informant how that works, and how they deal with the collision of beliefs, but it is definitely a part of my thought process while analyzing this specific aspect of their culture. It seems like Jamaicans are in touch with their ancestors whether that is doing rituals to please them, or seeing their spirits roam, they have a close connection to their families. Maybe Jamaican culture is big on family, I just have to assume this because I didn’t ask the informant this question either.

Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Czech Funeral

“I went to a funeral recently for my Czech nanny who passed away recently. Hana practically raised me, so her death was very, very difficult for me. I thought that I wouldn’t even be able to handle going to the funeral, my emotions were so high. But it was unlike any funeral I have ever been to. Most funerals are miserable, everybody crying, everybody in black. They’re awful experiences, and I hope you never have to go to one. But this one was different. This one was exactly what I needed to help grieve. So it was actually a celebration of her life. Whenever anyone spoke, they were just to recall fun times they had had together. Her favorite music was playing. Everyone was wearing bright colors. The old and the young were all mingling and engaging with one another. It was beautiful. I think that’s how a lot of the world celebrates death, or at least they should. I think I heard someone say that it’s the Czech . . . or I guess Slavic people in general have a healthier outlook on death than most.”

The informant has never lived outside of her hometown in Orange County. The experience was so novel to her that it began to represent much of her understanding of modern European culture, as she now believes that such funeral practices are more common in Europe. The informant really stressed the communion of the old and young at this funeral, as no one was segregated into groups based on age or gender. Given the deep Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of the Baltic regions of Europe, such an funeral seems very uncharacteristic, given traditional Christian death rituals. Perhaps this informant’s experience is indicative of changing times in which, as she said, a healthier outlook on death has become the norm.

Tales /märchen

The Killing Doll

The Killing Doll

The Informant:

My friend, was born in South Korea. She came the States at a young age, before beginning elementary school. She told this story near a campfire that my friends and I held before spring break.

The Story:

I heard this when I was in elementary school, in the third grade I think. A family friend told me this story, she was a couple years older, in middle school as I recall.

“When I was younger, my family was taking care of a friend’s dog. A day before the dog came, my sister and I visited a garage sale down the street. My sister decided to purchase a doll. It looked like a regular doll except for the fact that it had four fingers straight and the thumb was curled toward the palm. We didn’t think much of the strange hands and brought the doll back home. The next day my whole family decided to go out and locked the dog in the room, and it happened to be in the room with the doll, so that it would not tear up the house. When the entire family came back the dog wasn’t breathing so we took him to the vet and it was pronounced dead. It was only later when we came back home that we realized the doll only had three fingers outstretched.

We had a weird feeling about the doll so the next day we decided to return it.”

The Analysis:

I questioned her about this story because I personally heard a similar one in my childhood. The story centers on the strange doll and implies that it somehow kills a living force a night after someone or something is spent in the same room as it. How the death occurs remains unknown.



The Informant:

He is in his early 50s and works as an engineer. Born in Incheon, South Korea, he immigrated to the United States after he married my mother in 1991. He heard the story of the gumiho when he was in high school from his friends.

The Story:

구미호는 여우야. 꼬리가 아홉개있는 여우.

미 는 꼬리라는 의미고, 구 는 아홉이고, 호는 여우같다.

구미호는 어느날 자기를 사랑하는 총각을 만나면 여자로 변신을해. 그리고 여자로 그 남자한테가서 꼬시 는 거야. 납자가 사랑을헤서 반하고 구미호는 자기 집으로 대려가. 거기서 맛있는 음식을주고 따뜻한 이불을깔고 술 도줘. 그 총각이 잠을들면 그의 심장을 뜯어 먹어서 이젠 평생 사람으로 살수 있는거야. 

구미호는 사람은 아니고 귀신이지. 그리고 꼬리는 항상보여. 여우든 여자든 꼬리는 항상 나타나. 그래서 어떤 모습이든 숨기려고해 아니면 잡히니까.

The gumiho is a fox with nine-tails. Mi means tail, Gu means nine, and Ho to be sly like a fox.

It only approaches bachelors and tries to seduce them. When the gumiho meets a man who truly loves her, the gumiho transforms into the figure of a woman. The man falls for her beauty and she leads him to her lair, at which she prepares a warm bed, nice food, and serves alcohol. When the man falls asleep, she then rips out his heart and eats it. She does this to become permanently human.

The gumiho is a form of ghost. It can either be in fox or human form. Whichever form it appears in, the tails are always visible and so it tries to hide it.

The Analysis:

The gumiho tale is often told to young, unmarried men – bachelors – in Korea. From my insight, it is told as a warning to men to be wary of women in general. She may appear to be perfect and pretty, but inside they are all foxes, sly with unknown intentions. This is the first story in which I have heard the gumiho eating a man’s heart, not liver. This signifies that she takes over his life, as he dies but it lives on as a human woman.

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle

Funeral Customs

Funeral Customs


Q: Why do Koreans wear white at funerals?

A: Because it’s clean. It shows that when they’re being sent off from this world to another, whatever world there is, they’re going off cleanly. It cleanses them of their life they led on earth and also paves the road in front of them to be smooth and clean.

Q: Why do people where black now?

A: Because it’s an American tradition. Normally Koreans, Asian cultures in general, wore white. Traditional clothes are also worn at funerals; it’s a sign of respect.


Folk Beliefs

Ghost leaving hairbrush on the dresser

Information about the Informant

My informant is the father of a high school girl who was visiting USC campus for a college tour.


“And then her mother passed away just a few years ago. Um, and she was close to her mom. And her mom, you know, died suddenly. They didn’t expect her to die. And she may have been not taking her medication or something of that nature. So it’s like maybe preventable. Preventable. Um. So her old–and this woman’s fifty, so she’s not like a kid. Um. The mom–the woman–her mother was in her…maybe close to 80. Um. So she went to a psychic. Someone had said, ‘Oh, maybe you’ll feel–get closure from this woman,’ so she goes and listens to this woman. And the woman said, ‘Oh yeah, your mom’s here with you and she’s sorry that she had to leave. But she’s looking over you,’ and all that stuff. And the– my friend was still thinking this was just kinda, ‘Ok, this woman’s just telling her [inaudible].’ And then she starts saying–she said, oh, there was things that– she left some stuff in her house for her. But they had already gone to the house to clean it. Um, clean the apartment. Um, so she said but there was things that were left there for her. So she said, ok, whatever. So she went back to the house. Another day, not even that day. She was–a couple of days later. And there was–there was things sitting on the…the dresser. That weren’t there. I mean, she says they weren’t there before. She says, ‘I’ve–we cleaned, everything was in boxes.’ And it was a brush, like her mom’s brush, that she would brush her hair, like, my friend when she was a little girl, her mom would use this brush. And there were a few other little things that were sitting there. On the–on the dresser. And, like she said it was–it–the whole house had been cleaned and packed up. So she went back to that woman–the woman. She says, ‘Oh, can you tell me more?’ And she says, ‘Oh, she’s always looking out for you,’ and all that kinda stuff, ‘and will always be here.’ That was like two years ago. So she’s…totally believes all this stuff. You know, my friend believes that, oh, her mom’s looking out for her.”


This is a prime example of a memorate. The friend in this account experienced the events in the account for herself, but her story is also part of a larger narrative about ghosts and contact from the afterlife. The significance of the experience for her is pretty clear; she was close to her mother and most likely was grieving the loss of such a beloved figure. The possibility that her mother could still interact with her even after death is a comforting one, especially reinforced by the hairbrush being left on the dresser, an item that she associates with her childhood experiences with her mother taking care of her by brushing her hair for her. My informant, however, when telling this story, sounded less than convinced that there was a supernatural reason behind the experience. I felt that, to him, this story was more important because his friend was involved in it and it marked a turning point in her life, as my informant stated that after this incident, his friend did start believing that her mother was looking after her from the afterlife, when, in his story, she too had been skeptical of the psychic being able to offer her anything substantial.

Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ghost Bikes

The informant (J) is a 22 year old college graduate who just started his first real job. He got into bicycling during the summer of 2012 when he was renting a room in Sunnyvale, California near his summer internship. Though he had had bikes prior to that summer, he began to rely on his bike exclusively for the 8 mile round-trip to his workplace from his rented room. He borrowed a bike from his mother’s friend but eventually bought his own once he got his first couple paychecks. He purchased a mid-end road bike and quickly got wrapped up in the biking communities on sites like Though his commute was short, the threat of being hit by cars is always on the top of serious bicyclists’ minds, especially when cycling in the street. I first asked about his biking knowledge when I encountered a white bike chained to a pole near Union Station in Los Angeles, California. He learned about this from the people he talks to on the internet about biking, since none of his real-life friends like to ride in the same way he does. He had heard of the practice before he saw his first ghost bike. The following is a paraphrase of the information he gave me regarding the practice.

“The white bikes are called ghost bikes. They get put up when a cyclist dies on the road. They just find a bike and paint it white before chaining it to a pole or something near the spot the cyclist was killed. They usually get put up by the friends of the cyclists, if they know about the ghost bikes, but they can also be put up by random cyclists if they hear about the accident and are familiar with the idea. At first, there are usually pictures and candles and stuff along with the bike but the bike usually stays there longer than all that stuff. They do have to chain the bike to something or assholes will steal the bike even though it’s basically like one of those crosses they put on the side of the road when some dies in a car accident or a shooting or something like that. Luckily, I’ve never known anyone personally who died while cycling so I haven’t had to put one up, but I definitely notice when I see one. It’s a little weird to see one. It’s supposed to tell the drivers to be careful and watch the road”

The practice of putting up ghost bikes highlights the struggle felt between drivers and cyclists. There is tension between the two groups because a little tap won’t hurt a car, but can kill a cyclist easily, a fact that is often forgotten by those driving cars. Often, cars don’t even STOP when they hit a cyclist. The ghost bikes are a reminder that cyclists do get killed when drivers aren’t careful, both to the drivers and to the cyclists. It seems like a reminder to cyclists that even if they do everything “right,” things can still go very, very wrong. I think it unifies the cyclists under the pretense that they need to raise awareness so that other cyclists don’t suffer the same fate. The people who put these bikes up identify themselves as cyclists and the use of the bike to remember the death is representative of that. Though putting up a ghost bike is not something people want to have to do, it can serve to honor the life of the deceased by existing long after their death.

Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy


The informant (L) is a 22 year old film student at California State University Los Angeles. She grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma before coming to Los Angeles for college after high school. Her family is Mexican and Catholic. At the suggestion of our mutual friend who had heard the story before, she told me the legend of the Cihuateotl. She mentioned prior to telling me that the story was not told often within her family because of how sad it is. She was told the story by her grandmother when L’s fourth cousin died in childbirth, when L was around seven years old. Though L does not tell the story often within her family, L does tell the story when other urban legends are being discussed among her friends in Los Angeles, which is where I heard some of the story prior to beginning to collect folklore for this database.  The story involves the following legendary figures:

In “native ancient Mexico,” the cihuateotl are the spirits of the women who died in childbirth. Their sadness is the reason the sun goes down at night. Once a month, the spirits haunt the streets to hold the children they were never able to hold. After sunset, they try to abduct children. Because ‘good’ children should be inside and safe by the time the sun goes down, the children they were trying to abduct are the bad, misbehaving children. This is also used to scare children into behaving, as the cihuateotl would not give the children back.

This mix of ancient myth and urban legend is an interesting intersection between old and new. Though the spirits make sense in both modern and ancient contexts, the haunting of streets does not make as much sense in ancient Mexico, which probably did not have the sort of streets and highways L referred to in her retelling.

The story also presents some interesting contrasts. The fact that the cihuateotl only abduct bad children seem to say something about how either those children  do not deserve a real mother or the mothers who allow their children to be  bad don’t deserve to have children when there are mothers who died trying to have them. While these ideas are in the background, the practical use of scaring children into behaving probably plays more of a role in why the story is told than the more subtle themes.


The Golden Spruce, Kiddk’yaas


“I think he got away on a kayak or something? Haha I have no clue how it got to that point but I know he disappeared, I think maybe someone helped him.”

There existed a tree off the coast of Vancouver that was considered sacred and highly meaningful to natives to the region (the indigenous people). The tree, called Kiidk’yass, was a bright gold spruce tree among a sea of green ones. A man who lived in the region grew very frustrated with society / the world, and wrote a manifesto detailing his issues. As a means to bring attention to his manifesto, he cut down the golden spruce tree. This caused an immense amount of anger and response from locals. The man was arrested immediately. However, on his way to court for his date of trial, he disappeared. The informant says he heard that the man was set free by someone else and kayaked away from Vancouver, never to be seen again.



The informant struggled to remember details of the story: why exactly the tree was sacred (beyond being stunningly stark in color), the man’s name, and the course of events that led to his identification and arrest. He was told the story by a family member, who heard it from a friend. Despite being born and raised in Vancouver, he didn’t have any personal connection to the idea of the tree, and neither did anyone in his family. He said the sacredness of the tree was mainly recognized by true natives — people who’s descendants were the first to populate the area.



In researching it further, the story of the golden spruce is rather well-documented by a book, The Golden Spruce. Filling in the details of the informants story, the man responsible for the crime took action as a statement against deforestation and industrial logging. He did in fact escape on a kayak, but the destroyed kayak was later found on an island. It is unknown if he died or purposefully left things behind on the kayak and was able to escape. Further information and another perspective on the story can be found in this book: