In Appalachian culture, a bizarre phenomenon of feather crowns found in the pillows of sick people became known as an omen of death.
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.
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.