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The following story was sent to us in the 1980s by Almanac reader John Dunphy…
Folklore has long been a passion of mine, and I want to share something genuinely extraordinary with your readers.
In the Missouri and Arkansas Ozark country and parts of Appalachia, as well as rural southern Illinois where I live, one often hears older residents mention the so-called “feather crowns,” also known as “heavenly crowns” and “angel wreaths.” These mysterious objects supposedly form in the pillows of people who are dying as proof that the person is going to an eternal reward in heaven.
I have read many descriptions of feather crowns and have even seen two of them with my own eyes. Apparently, the majority of crowns were simply loosely constructed arrangements of feathers resembling a crudely made bird’s nest (as were the two I examined), but some were exquisitely woven works of art resembling, in the words of one folklorist, “a large bun … solid enough to be tossed about like a ball, and surprisingly heavy.”
But how were they formed inside feather pillows? Many believers attributed the crowns to divine origin. Research reveals that feather vendors attributed the clustering of feather into bunches, or lumps, as a natural occurrence.
Every Ozark and southern Illinois folklorist who has dealt with feather crowns, while conceding that a minute number of rudely made ones might have been faked, is convinced that the overwhelming majority could not possibly have been made by human hands.
One thing is sure: When a person died, his relatives always searched the inside of the pillow for a heavenly crown. If one was found, the family rejoiced, and the crown was kept as a treasured relic for years. Although the Missouri and Arkansas Ozarks abound with stories regarding stolen crowns, shifted pillows, and crowns turning up in the pillows of people whose lives were hardly exemplary, it should be noted that the possibility for outright fraud in regard to heavenly crowns is small, since most hill folk are too superstitious to meddle in these matters.
Another explanation is that since these objects are found only in the pillows of someone who has recently died, they must be harbingers of death and therefore evil. People who subscribe to the “evil” theory point out that one never finds a perfect, finished crown excepting in the pillow of someone who has died.
The discovery of angel wreaths is a rare occurrence nowadays; I don’t know whether it is due to the increasing urbanization of the country and the resulting destruction of the old ways and beliefs or just the increased use of foam pillows.
One old-timer I interviewed did offer a third possible explanation for the dearth of heavenly crowns. “There jus’ ain’t as many people that’s deservin’ ’em these days,” he postulated.