Subject: Well. Whenever I pass cemetery, I hold my breath because I don’t want to disrespect the spirits who aren’t as lucky as I am to breathe. Because then they might come and haunt me.
Interviewer: Where did you hear that?
Subject: Um… from my older sister. Yeah you do it because you don’t want to disrespect the ghosts as you pass by. They’ll literally haunt you. Because they’re like, “Fuck you. You can breathe and I can’t.” You’ll piss off the spirits. I also used to think that you could like literally breathe them into your lungs. Like if you inhaled when you went past a cemetery, then they would enter you through your lungs.
Context: The subject is my 17-year-old younger brother in his senior year of high school. He is supposed to attend Yale in Fall of 2020. He is of Ashkenazi Jewish and Russian descent. We have been quarantined together due to the Coronavirus pandemic and staying at our home in Charleston, South Carolina. After dinner, we were sitting in the dark in the living room and I asked him to tell me any folklore he could think of off the top of his head.
Interpretation: I remember being taught this superstition from my older sister as well. It was a very appealing superstition as a kid because it felt like a game. Whenever I would pass a particularly large cemetery, it was a great challenge between my siblings and I of who could hold our breath the longest. Related to this superstition is the act of covering your mouth when we yawn. Breath has always been associated with life and spirit, so it makes perfect sense that breathing when you passed the dead would be offensive. I thought it was interesting how this superstition seems to specifically in the context of driving in a car. It’s not realistic for a person to hold their breath as they walk past a cemetery, so it suggests that this superstition practice is modern. The old version of the superstition seems to go back to The Black Plague, when it was believed that the illness could be transmitted from dead bodies because of people inhaling as they passed by. The “spirit” that possessed people was actually the plague.