Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
You’ve probably heard the old wives’ tale that deaths come in threes. It’s not the only superstition out there about that most uncomfortable of subjects. But while other customs and superstitions – like sitting up with the dead, covering mirrors in the house, and closing windows – have fallen out of favor and practice, probably as funerals moved out of the home and into the funeral parlor, the idea that deaths happen in groups of three has not only persisted but grown.
Three has always been a number favored by tradition, folklore and superstition. Think of the genie’s three wishes. Three little pigs. The three bears that Goldilocks trespasses on.
The mysticism surrounding that number persisted even as other folk beliefs were dying out or being transformed into children’s stories. For instance, after WWI American soldiers returning from Europe started spreading a superstition that if three soldiers lit a cigarette on the same match, one of the three would be shot or killed.
Not all of them are bad luck superstitions, though. The optimist who has failed at his first two tries might repeat the mantra “third times the charm” before making their next attempt, for instance.
Some of this focus may be based on religious tradition, like the three wise men and the Holy Trinity. But superstitions and traditions surrounding the number extend to cultures that predate Christianity and to far flung corners of the globe where the religion still isn’t widely practiced, so it can’t be contributed entirely to that. Some folklorists and anthropologists believe it’s because three is the smallest number that can form a repeating pattern other than the basic two. In other words, two times is a coincidence, three times makes a pattern.
This has been on my mind recently because of a series of deaths in my own family. When a cousin passed away in late February the comments began. “It always comes in threes,” someone would say. “I wonder who is next?”
The next member of the Wells clan to pass away was my grandfather, Robert G. Wells. It was two months later, so maybe the pattern wasn’t holding. Maybe these were both just random tragedies – Larry a young man, with a son only slightly older than my own, taken too early. My grandfather, his uncle, an old man who had lived a long and full life but still left too soon for all of us.
Just over a month later, another cousin passed away. Like little Larry, Justin was only 46 when he passed, leaving his children and family behind without a father. They weren’t close together, but there were our three. The pattern held, but we were out of the woods for now.
Except I wasn’t. Four days later, I lost my mom’s brother, my uncle Rick Hatten. The number was now at four and, when I went to look back at my cousins’ obituaries I discovered that a fifth relative, a cousin of my late grandmother, had passed away a month before my grandpa.
So, the patterns don’t hold. That is, unless you are looking for them to.
I suppose you could say there were three deaths in the Wells family directly. Since Rick is on my mother’s side of the family, and Robin is on the Bailey side of the family, we could say they don’t count toward the total. But this is the kind of rationalization that makes these kind of superstitions stick around. Three is a small enough number that, depending on how and when you want to count, you can make anyone fit into the pattern.
It does provide some small comfort, I suppose. Some closure for those looking for an end to a series of tragedies.
It may be cold comfort, but if that’s what it takes to help you get through a funeral, who am I to try and steal that from you and yours? Traditions are kept for a reason after all, even if it’s not always immediately apparent.
Jeremy D. Wells can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org