Feather death crown

Feather Death Crowns: An Appalachian Omen of Death

In Appalachian culture, a bizarre phenomenon of feather crowns found in the pillows of sick people became known as an omen of death.
Vintage feather death crown photo by Lori Kimball
Feather death crown dating somewhere between the 1800s and the 1930s. Photo by Lori Kimball / www.veraviola.com

Feather pillows are about as rare the Loch Ness Monster, but once upon a time they were as common as could be.

Long ago, the people of Appalachia began to notice a peculiar phenomenon: odd crownlike masses in the pillows of the seriously ill or recently deceased.

These objects became known as Death Crowns (or less-commonly, angel crowns). Death Crowns are usually elaborate, interlocking designs that resemble a disc or crown. The quills always point inward, and though rare, are only found in the feather pillows of the seriously ill or recently deceased.

Because of the isolated, rural nature of the area, the phenomenon appears to be unique to Appalachia, or locations where some of these mountain folk migrated, such as Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio. But it’s almost exclusively a lost-belief now that most people have switched out their feather pillows for comfort foam or synthetic fibers.

I was fortunate enough to overhear a death crown story in my youth, otherwise I’d likely be unaware such a concept ever existed. My family has lived in Hall County, Georgia for generations, just miles from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

My great aunt paid us a visit when I was maybe 5 years old. She started talking about the recent death of her elderly father. He’d been killed while walking around a bus he’d just exited. A car sped by without caution, striking the old man. She was elected the sorrowful chore of sorting through her father’s belongings. As she lifted her father’s ancient feather pillow she felt something solid inside. She started to throw the pillow away, but something compelled her to open it up. She reached inside and probed with her fingers in search of what she had felt. To her astonishment, she pulled out an intricately woven wreath of feathers, roughly the size of a bird’s nest. She took this has a sign her father had gone to heaven.

After several minutes of convincing, she persuaded me to go play. After a while, I forgot about the whole thing—until bed of course. I recall squeezing and kneading my pillow in search of anything that might remotely feel like a “death wreath.” I didn’t. Finally, I fell asleep.

A vintage death crown with post-mortem photo and funeral card
Vintage death crown in a bell jar with post-mortem photo and funeral card. Photo by Lori Kimball.

These odd formations are usually interpreted as a heavenly sign, but skeptics believe that the movements of a dying person—tossing and turning combined with fever sweats–could cause these objects to take form.

If you are one of the few that still sleeps on feather pillow, do not lose all hope if you find a Death Crown in your pillow tonight. One old wives’ tale claims that if you break these wreaths up you could prevent the death of the person the pillow belongs to.

A collection of these oddities can be found at the Museum of Appalachia in Clinton, Tennessee.


J. Nathan Couch is the author of Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? Find more of his work on his website at www.jnathancouch.com

Death crown photos courtesy of Lori Kimball. Lori sells unique vintage oddities at www.veraviola.com. Follow her on Instagram @veraviola_vintage

46 replies
  1. Avatar
    Charity says:

    Crazy to google this and find others still have their family’s death crowns too. Was always my dads big joke when he’d get ready for a nap on hen divan, he’d knead the pillow telling us he was breaking up any deathcrowns. They are REALLY strange to inspect. Ours is from early 1900’s grandmofher

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    SUSAN WRIGHT says:

    I remember my mother showing me one and telling me about them. It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen. The feathers are so tightly woven that they hold together on their own. It was never referred to as a death omen but rather as a sign the person went to heaven. It was always revered as a good thing. Side note: I was born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Carol says:

      I am in possession of a crown from my paternal grandfather’s pillow. He died in 1923. The feathers could not be more tightly fused if they were glued.

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    Eugene Charney says:

    I’m 65. When I was a kid in WI, each year my mother would refeather blankets and pillows. Cut’em open fluff’em and air’em. I remember her saying if we didn’t they’d make nests

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Sarah Armistead says:

    My grandmother had four feather crowns. They were from four of her family members who all died between 1896 and 1908. She kept them in a Young’s Skin Soap box in the drawer of her peddle sewing machine. I remember looking at them when I was growing up but knew not to touch them. Three of them are owned by family members and one is in a museum.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Elaine Pollard Clickner says:

      I’m so glad to have confirmation of an old memory of my mother and step grandmother talking about the arrangement of the feathers in the pillow of a recently deceased relative. I thought perhaps I had only imagined the whole thing.

      Reply
  5. Avatar
    Heather says:

    As a skeptic I need to point out that all people who sleep on pillows (feather or not) die eventually. So you could logically assume these just develop naturally in all feather pillows from daily use. The tradition is neat though!

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Pup says:

    I have one. When my great grandmother died my grandmother reached into her pillow and pulled it out. My great aunt wanted it kept in the family and gave it to me when I was a little girl. It’s really fascinating.

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    heather barr says:

    There is a novel called Feather Crowns by Bobbie Ann Mason. It’s set I Kentucky in 1900. Beautiful book, describes this peculiar tradition in the context of a family that has the first quintuplets born in the USA. Thanks for helping me remember this, I think ill read it again.

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    Ruby Rogers _Faiola says:

    I have a Death Crown From my Brother who passed away at the age 8 years in Estill County, Ky.in 1942

    Reply
  9. Avatar
    The Real McCoy says:

    I found one in my grandmother’s pillow after we burned her bedding including the pillow. However the pillow did not burn through to the center where I found the crown at about age 17. Our family story was that finding the crown was a sign the person went to heaven. Never heard of it in our family as being a death crown.

    Reply
      • Avatar
        Charles Earley says:

        My Grandmother passed away in 1942 and I have her feather crown.and I enjoy sharing it with people with the story behind it.Ga

        Reply
    • Avatar
      saundra says:

      most ppl go to paradise remember the three levels mention in corth. the lower is as equal to the stars. by our obedience determine out place. then of course you’re gonna rise up when the millennium comes for a thousand years. lotts of work needs to be done then the final judgement then he shall be saved or go love in outer darkness forever .

      Reply
  10. Avatar
    Steve Hicks says:

    Strange how some have to cross examin or examin what people say to see if they’re telling a story or not.
    We’ll she said this or this like she’s lying about it or something.

    My grandmother told me about these years ago as well.
    When she passed no one checked the pillow.
    In fact it was the last thing we were thinking of.
    It was the day after Christmas so everyone was on edge.

    But a lady i done some work for when I was younger showed me one she had of her grandmother death crown.
    Really neat looking,
    But how it was woven together I couldn’t explain how it could be put together by itself or if someone could even duplicate how it was woven together.
    All I can say is I’ve seen one and held it.
    I can’t explain it no more than what you see.
    I remember it all wrapped together like a percussion tape wound together and was as wide as my hand and bound together so neatly about and 1/8 thick.

    Reply
  11. Avatar
    JasonG says:

    I have slept on feather pillows all my life. They’re really not that hard to find if you book. Last October I was hospitalized with a double pulmonary embolism. When I came home I had found a very large crown in my pillow. It creeps me the hell out, and I broke it up and immediately.

    Reply
  12. Avatar
    Renee Howard says:

    I have slept on a feather pillows my whole life…you can buy them many places…just Google feather not down feather pillows I’m 57 and I don’t know if I could sleep on anything different..

    Reply
  13. Avatar
    Hollis says:

    I just inherited a death crown from my grandmother who lived in Tennessee… Still trying to track down exactly what my relation to the relative is, but most recent story is the death crown is my great, great, grandfathers. Hoping my grandmother has a lucid day soon and can tell me more, but she’d had it hidden away in an old matchbox for most of her life, and it now has a home in a glass box on my mantle. Such a cool story!

    Reply
  14. Avatar
    tamtam says:

    Strange. I’ve never heard of this phenomenon prior to reading of it here. I would guess that the movement and fluids excreted by a bed-ridden individual would cause that particular thing to happen.

    My late grandmother slept on feather pillows in her home. I was away at school when she died, but if I had known about Death Crowns, I would have checked her pillows out

    Reply
  15. Avatar
    Cherie says:

    I recently purchased a pillow from good will I got to sleep on it one night ! And my dogs made sure there were no death crowns in it while I was gone the next day ! I will be picking up feathers for the next year !!! 🙂

    Reply
  16. Avatar
    Kevin Measimer says:

    I can see the movements of an ill person as well as sweat and other secretions influencing materials in a pillow even if just damage of some kind. Your aunt though said her father was hit by a bus but we don’t know from the article if he was indeed ill beforehand. Interesting intro to a bit of folk history.

    Reply
  17. Avatar
    Teresa says:

    Thanks for the article, I have my great grandmother’s and her baby. My mom passed away in 2012 on a feather pillow, I knew to put it away for awhile but now I just can’t bring myself to check it, so it sits in my closet undisturbed

    Reply

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