Someone Walked Over My Grave - Meaning and Origin

We’ve all heard it said that someone walked over my grave. We might even have said it ourselves. But what does it mean?  

What Is the Meaning Behind Someone Walking Over My Grave?

When a person says "someone walked over my grave," they mean that they've got sudden, inexplicable shivers. 

Someone Walked Over My Grave Examples in Sentences

The first recorded instance of the idiom "someone walked over my grave" appears in a book by Simon Wagstaff. This is the pen name of Johnathan Swift, and he uses the phrase in his book A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation

Published in 1738, Wagstaff’s book uses the phrase as follows: 

Lord, there’s someone walking over my grave.

Again, in 1868, Harriet Parr used the expression in his book Basil Godfrey’s Caprice

Parr writes:

Joan shuddered -  that irrepressible convulsive shudder which old wives say is caused by a footstep walking over the place of our grave that shall be. 

Much later, Harper Lee’s Scout, thinking of her dead brother, says in Go Set a Watchman;

Someone walked over my grave, [Scout] thought, probably Jem on some idiotic errand.

Origins of Someone Walked Over My Grave 

As the examples indicate, the phrase "someone walked over my grave" has a long history. Interestingly, it’s not a uniquely English one, either. 

A Dutch correspondent for Britain’s Notes and Queries records the phrase in a letter that predates Parr by 19 years. 

Not only that but "someone walked over my grave" has a corresponding French variant, "on marche sur ma tombe." This translates to "someone walked over my grave." 

But where does it come from? 

Someone Walked Over My Grave and Death Sentences  

While there are various explanations for how "someone walked over my grave" came to be, the best has to do with prisons. 

Before Britain abolished the death penalty, prisoners at Newgate Prison walked from their cells to the executioner, walking, literally, over their graves. 

It’s enough to make anyone shiver. 

Similar Idioms to Someone Walked Over My Grave

While there are various corruptions of the original expression "someone walked over my grave," it’s hard to find synonymous phrases. 

The two closest are:

  • By the pricking of my thumbs
  • Send(s) shivers up/down my spine

By The Pricking of My Thumbs 

This idiom, taken from Macbeth, describes the tingling or "prickling" of flesh in response to something unnatural, even evil. 

Unlike "someone walked over my grave," it conveys a sense of dread or unease.

Send(s) Shivers Up/Down My Spine 

This is another idiom that refers to sudden, unanticipated chills or shivers. Like "by the pricking of my thumbs," it can be used to communicate uneasiness, something not associated with "someone walked over my grave."  

Correct Usage and Alternatives to Someone Walked Over My Grave

While the best-known rendering of this idiom is "someone walked over my grave," it’s not the only version. 

Other permutations include:

  • A ghost walked over my grave 
  • A goose walked over my grave
  • A rabbit ran over my grave 

A Ghost Walked Over My Grave 

While "a ghost walked over my grave" is eerier than its less-ghostly idiom, the two phrases are interchangeable.

The substitution of  "ghost" for the innocuous "someone" may derive from the superstition that at certain times of the year, ghosts wander the earth. Such occasions include:

  • All Souls Day 
  • All Hallows Eve 
  • Equinoxes 

 A Goose Walked Over My Grave 

This unlikely reworking of the original idiom is often connected to goosebumps appearing in response to chills or shivers. 

This makes sense since the expression references the sudden onset of chills or gooseflesh.

But it’s not the only explanation for why geese, who are considerably less gothic than ghosts, started scampering over people’s graves. 

Another theory is that it’s a corruption of  "A ghost walked over my grave." Linguistically, this makes sense, too. In Old English, a ghost or spirit is a "gast." By the time English had shifted into Middle English, "ghast" had become "gost."

 A goose, on the other hand, is a "gos." Easily confused, no doubt. 

All you had to do was unthinkingly drop one letter, and a new idiom emerged.

A Rabbit Ran Over My Grave 

If geese are less gothic than ghosts, rabbits are even more innocuous. So, what are they doing inducing shivers in the unsuspecting? 

Believe it or not, rabbits have a long history as a symbol of the Trinity. Most people have seen three interlocked fish symbolize God, but it’s equally possible to find stained glass full of three interwoven rabbits. 

That being the case, why wouldn’t this emblem of God scarpering over a grave induce chills in the God-fearing grave-owner? 

Moreover, rabbits have shorter lifespans than humans, and from there, it’s a superstitious leap to suppose that if one’s running over your grave, it will shorten your life, too. 

But whether it’s the impersonal someone, ghosts, geese, or rabbits, we’ve all felt that sudden, inexplicable shiver. And now, whenever you feel it and have cause to sense someone walking over our grave, you’ll know where the expression comes from. 

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