Friday, March 30, 2012

The Legend & History of the Corpse Road



A Corpse Road
They are known by many names:  coffin roads, church-ways, funeral paths, corpse roads – all leading from a remote English village to the lych gates of the Mother church, many miles away.
A Coffin Way

Corpse roads came about during medieval times when villages were locating farther and farther afield.  Canon law of the period stated that a parishioner must be buried on the grounds of the Mother church, no matter how far away from their village or how dangerous the travel.

Coffin Stone
Funeral Procession
Eight men would take turns carrying the body along the corpse road. Four men, one at each corner, would carry the deceased until they came to a coffin stone.  These stones were laid out along the road at set intervals and designated as a place to lay the bier. Then the other four men would step in and continue carrying the deceased while the first four followed with the funeral procession, and rested.

Burial Road
Corpse roads were usually straight as they were the most direct route from the village to the burial grounds.  Some were only a couple of miles long; others were close to ten miles long.  Fields with a church-way passing through were left unplowed. It was believed that any field used as a coffin road would fail to produce good crops.  And, they were also associated with spirits, wraiths and ghosts. 

Running Water on a
Corpse Road
Stream Running on a Coffin Road



Although fences, walls, and buildings were not allowed to obstruct the corpse roads, usually at least one stream, river or marsh could be found crossing a coffin road.  Legend said that by carrying the deceased over running water, they could not return home.  The dead were also carried with their feet pointing away from their home, so that they could not return and haunt the living.

Corpse Candle

Corpse Light
Many times corpse lights or corpse candles would be seen traveling these paths, flitting low to the ground.  It was believed that the sprits of the dead traveled close to the earth in a straight line that connected the village and the cemetery.  Some said that the lights would travel to the dying person’s house the night before the death, then return to the cemetery and disappear into the ground where the burial would take place.

Spirit of the Dead
Will-o' the Wisp

Other phenomena related to corpse roads include will-o’ the wisps, also known as foolish fire, or Jack o’ lanterns.  Travelers saw these ghostly lights at night.  Folklore stated that these flickering lights were the spirits of the dead, trying to lead travelers astray.  Some legends identified them as the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn children caught between heaven and hell.


Crossroad
Witch Ball
Crossroads, where two roads intersected each other, were also considered dangerous on a corpse road because they were viewed as a location where the world and the underworld met.  It was believed that the Devil could appear at a crossroad. Crosses were placed at intersections – hence cross roads, to protect those passing from the Devil and wayward spirits. Later, witch balls were also hung along the road.  A witch ball was a bottle or enclosed circle of glass that contained threads and charms inside.  These were used to catch and tangle passing spirits, trapping their evil or negative energy inside.

Cross on a Church-Way
To counter the superstitions, crosses were also set along the burial roads every mile or so.  These were used as places for followers and mourners to stop and pray for the dead.




Lych Gate
Lych Gate
Once the funeral procession arrived at the burial ground, they would proceed to the lych gates.  (Lych is the Old English word for corpse.) Located at the entrance to the church property, the lych gates were constructed like a porch with a roof over them.  Clergy would meet the mourners at these gates and assume responsibility for the body, preparing it for the burial service.

Snow on a Corpse Road
Today, corpse roads are still visible throughout England, the Netherlands, and Ireland.  Although it has been centuries since they have been used for their original purpose, the rockiness and remoteness of these burial roads might still make it preferable to stay clear of the paths at night.

As Shakespeare said in A Midsummer’s Night Dream:

 Now it is the time of night,

That the graves all gaping wide,

Every one lets forth his sprite

In the church-way paths to glide.

~ Joy