Mythical Monday: Corpse Roads by Mae Clair

Imagine a craggy footpath etched into a rugged landscape which ultimately ends at a lonely cemetery or church with ancient burial grounds. In medieval times such “corpse roads” were commonplace—established routes used to transport the dead to their final resting place. Because bodies could only be buried at designated mother churches or minsters, mourners were often forced to transport their loved ones across long distances, usually by foot.

These paths, rugged and uninhabited, became known as corpse roads, church-ways, burial roads, and bier roads. Their topography was frequently dotted with crosses and coffin stones—large, flat stones where a procession set a casket when pausing to rest—and usually crossed a bridge or marsh. Most of our ancestors believed the spirits of the departed could not cross water, hence corpse roads incorporated a path that spanned a ford or lake, preventing the deceased from returning to haunt the living. Bodies were carried with their feet facing away from home, another superstition to keep restless ghosts from returning.

Stream crosses the Corpse Road This is the old drovers track between Eskdale & Wasdale. It is also the old corpse road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale.

Stream crosses the Corpse Road. This is the old drovers track between Eskdale & Wasdale. It is also the old corpse road from Wasdale to the church at Boot in Eskdale. Photo courtey Nigel Chadwick [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Spirits, wraiths, and even nature beings such as faeries, were believed to move along special routes like burial roads, flying close to the ground on a straight line. For this reason, any direct path connecting two places was kept clear of obstructing fences, walls, and buildings, so as not to impede the flight of the phantoms. As a result, locals knew to avoid such byways after dark. Labyrinths and mazes had the opposite effect, hindering the movement of spirits.

Flickers of flame called “corpse candles” were often seen traveling just above the ground on the path between a dying person’s house, the cemetery and back again. A phenomenon reported mostly in Wales, it’s also believed corpse candles materialized in churchyards preceding someone’s death.

In some parts of the UK and Europe those endowed with supernatural abilities would watch coffin paths on auspicious dates. These “lych watches” were conducted to receive premonitions of who might perish in the coming year.

There are numerous beliefs and legends tied to corpse roads. Some country folk believe that if a body is carried across a field the ground will thereafter fail to produce a good harvest. Others, that coffin stones were sanctified and placed on church-ways to allow the body a place to rest on its journey without defiling the ground beneath it.

Coffin Stone at Town End This stone is beside a 'corpse road' along which coffins had to be carried from Ambleside for burial at St Oswald's Church, Grasmere. This stone, along with others along the way, was used to support the coffin while the bearers rested.

Coffin Stone at Town End. This stone is beside a ‘corpse road’ along which coffins had to be carried from Ambleside for burial at St Oswald’s Church, Grasmere. This stone, along with others along the way, was used to support the coffin while the bearers rested.Photo courtesy of Gordon Brown [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Legend tells of a funeral procession which bore the body of a man who had done great evil in his life. The procession paused to rest, setting the casket on a coffin stone for a brief time. Almost at once, the casket is struck by lightning, shattering it to bits, reducing its contents to ash, and splitting the stone in two. The procession determines God did not want such a vile soul buried in the cemetery and took actions to prevent it.

Like so many of our forgotten customs and folklore, corpse roads harken back to a time when superstition ruled both day and night and simple folk placed their faith in good over evil. The echo of those beliefs and quiet voices still linger today, buried in the dusty remnants of legend. As long as we keep memory alive, old traditions will always find a place at the campfire. Do you find these old stories as interesting as I do?

24 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: Corpse Roads by Mae Clair

  1. Interesting and as spooky topic. Here in Romania we have the same belief that a dead person must be carried with the feet facing away from home. There’s a rich folklore regarding burying the dead too. Things that have come down from generation to generation.

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    • Carmen, I had never heard the folklore regarding carrying a body with the feet facing away from home until I wrote this post, but it seems like it must have been a belief observed by many cultures. How interesting to learn that it was a common belief in Romania, too. I find such topics eerie and spooky but fascinating, too!

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  2. Much more interesting than I should, perhaps. There is a famous corpse road in the North Pennine hills which has to traverse Cross Fell, the highest of the Pennine peaks. Winter conditions up there could (and still do) get so severe as to render the path impassable, and there were occasions when a coffin had to be abandoned on the hill until the thaw, which could be days or weeks ahead. If ever there was a valid excuse for a haunting, Cross Fell (which looks forbidding even in summer) must be a prime candidate, I think.

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    • What an intriguing tale! Cross Fell sounds like a mysterious and forbidding place. I imagine there are many tales of superstition related to it. Thanks so much for sharing this information. I’m enraptured by these old places, their legends and their history.

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  3. Fascinating, Mae. I think it’s quite hard for us in the modern world to understand how captive people were to traditons and lore in the past. We have no idea how frightening the world was to people who had no access to light at night as we do. I would think Cross Fell must have been the harshest corpse road in England, Frederick. The poor bearers must have been exhausted at the end of their journey even on a summer day.

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    • Excellent point, Daisy. What a task it must have been to bear a body, even a loved one over such great distances and rugged terrain. Knowing the pall bearers had to be grieving the loss of a loved one makes that task even harder. Take away the warmth of daylight and replace it with the cloak of night, it’s no wonder tales of superstition were born. There was so much reverence in the past, but also fear.

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  4. Do you ever wonder what event gave rise to superstitions in the first place? Something must have happened for a belief and then a ritual to have evolved. And talk about stories around the camp fires! The ones taking place in medieval times must have been something else! Anyway, I enjoyed the post, Mae! Happy Mythical Monday!

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    • Huddled around that camp fire I would probably be sending repetitive glances over my shoulder into the dark, and then listening for any betraying whisper of sound. I guess our ancestors were lucky that after these stories started, they could cluster together in groups for safety. I know I would want that security, LOL! Happy Mythical Monday!

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  5. Fascinating post! I love hearing about corpse roads and the byways over which the dead must be carried, as well as the stipulations protecting the living. It gives me a special feeling and makes me remember the crossroads of Hecate. Thank you for sharing. Cross Fell does sound almost impenetrable and what a striking name.

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    • I love that name too…it just sounds so ominous and…old. For some reason looking at all of these old superstitions about death makes us appreciate our present as well as honor our ancestors. I am glad they put such high accolades on burying their loved ones, and the care they took in ushering them into the hereafter!

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    • Oh, yes, great story fodder. And it does seem that in the U.S., our country is so young, we have little in the way of ancient folklore like this, much of what we do have brought over by the cultures that came to our country. Neil Gaimin wrote a cool book on that theme called American Gods. I think writing a story revolving around a corpse road would be an excellent idea!

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  6. Spooky, definitely a candidate for a good campfire story. When you mention carrying the coffin so the feet were facing away from the house, I thought of old Irish tales. I must do some research and see if this was common here in olden times.
    I think you could write a great novella or short story about corpse roads, Mae. What do you think? 🙂

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    • Ooh, I would love to tackle a short about corpse roads. Something atmospheric and spooky, like an old Night Gallery episode. I’m going to have to add it to my list, Emma. Now if I can just eke out the time, LOL!

      And I bet there is all kinds of old Irish folktales about corpse roads, because the fairy realm factors heavily into most legends!

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