Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Corpse Roads

Stack of books with round eyeglasses on top, brass vintage candle, and carnivale mask in background

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 crossing a 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. Photo courtesy of Gordon Brown [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

One particular legend involves a funeral procession that bore the body of a man who had done great evil in his life. When the procession paused to rest, they set the casket on a coffin stone for a brief time. Almost at once, the casket was struck by lightning, shattering it to bits, reducing its contents to ash, and splitting the stone in two. The procession determined God did not want such a vile soul buried in the cemetery and took actions to prevent the mans interment.

Like so many of our forgotten customs and folklore, corpse roads harken 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?

91 thoughts on “Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Corpse Roads

    • It would make an excellent title for a book, Priscilla. Hmm. . . 🙂

      The lightning story is definitely freaky. I would imagine it sent everyone scattering. I’m sure I would have taken off running!

      Glad you enjoyed the post. I love old legends!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow…this is the first I’ve heard of corpse roads or the legends associated with them. Years back, I lived in Easton, CT. There was a graveyard not far from my home that had fences around it and signs warning “No Trespassing”. Police regularly arrested folks trying to sneak in. https://www.travelchannel.com/interests/haunted/articles/haunted-easton-cemetery Supposedly, it is haunted and there are plenty of stories about it. I only drove past in the daylight — never even paused. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • OOoo! Thanks for the link, Gwen. I will definitely check it out. With those rumors of hauntings you wouldn’t catch me inside–especially at night. If I was with someone else, I’d definitely venture there during the day, but even with a group of people I’d pass that one by at night. Can’t wait to check out the link!

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    • I’m glad you enjoy folklore too, Mischenko. It’s amazing the old superstitions and legends that are out there. It makes me think of stories told around a campfire, or on a windy night tucked in an old cottage with a flickering hearth. I agree the lightning element in this tale is VERY creepy!!

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  2. These stories are terrific, Mae. I was fascinated by the corpse candles and wonder what could cause that occurrence (other than corpses) Since the candles occur in Wales at lot there must be something going on there. Fabulous post. Thanks.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, Tessa. When I look at pictures of these old byways, they seem peaceful and serene—at least in the daylight. I don’t think I’d want to travel a corpse road by night, however.
      I do enjoy digging around for folklore. It always carries echoes of yesteryear.
      So glad you enjoyed the post!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This post was SO INTERESTING. I didn’t know the living worked so hard to keep the spirits where they belonged. Love the idea of carrying them feet forward to guide them to the graveyard and away from home. And I’d never heard that spirits couldn’t cross water. So different from The Day of the Dead celebrations where families remember and celebrate their loved ones who passed. And the story about the lightning??? Awesome!

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    • Judi, I agree it’s strange how different cultures have different superstitions (and celebrations) related to the passing of a loved one. I just finished a book with a sin eater as a character, and wow was that interesting! I remember being spooked by an old Night Gallery episode about a sin eater when I was a kid. The idea of a corpse road with coffin stones just screams of old customs. I would love to walk one of those roads someday–as long as it was in daylight!

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  4. Oh my, YES, Mae! I find these stories absolutely fascinating. I’ve never heard of corpse roads or the superstition of carrying the body with the feet facing home. But the story of the lightning strike is just almost beyond belief. I love these! Thank you for sharing!

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    • So glad you enjoyed the post, Jan. It’s so very interesting the superstitions and customs our ancestors practiced. Things that are mostly forgotten now, but still reflect old cultures.

      I definitely would not have wanted to be in that funeral procession with the casket that was struck by lightning. I imagine those poor people were petrified the next time they had to carry a coffin on that corpse road!

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  5. So interesting! I’ve never heard of Corpse Roads. Such stories reveal man’s ignorance but they left behind fascinating stories to fan our imagination. I am sure you can write a book about Corpse Roads Mae.

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    • I’ve definitely gleaned some story ideas, Balroop. There is definitely plenty of creep factor in the custom of corpse roads–and that lightning strike. I’m going to have to start penning notes, LOL.
      So glad you found this as interesting as I did! 🙂

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    • Absolutely! I can relate it to an experience I had staying in a haunted hotel. I didn’t realize the hotel was supposedly haunted at the time, but afterward it made me look at things a little differently. I imagine anyone who walked a corpse road then learned of it afterward might feel the same.

      BTW, had I know beforehand it was haunted, I never would have stayed there. I’m too much of wuss about those things!

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  6. Whoa. I love this post. Mae. How cool is that, and that some of the roads, stones, and superstitions are still here today. I first learned about corpse roads in the series The Raven Boys, which is great by the way. I didn’t realize that these roads were actually identifiable. The photos are fascinating. Thanks for sharing!

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  7. I have never heard of these roads, Mae. I do love learning about past traditions and reading this has already got me to thinking! Thank you for sharing this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post. I love folklore and write of it often, it always interests me; origin tales. This was a great read. In Scotland “crow roads” (as they are called here- an old belief that a crow flew the road to the grave you were to be buried in- lol but there are so many crows in the highlands that this is possibly true and a coincidence at the same time) are common and similarly always cross water. It is believed here that witches, shades, bogles and the faerie cannot cross running water and so the corpse cannot be found by them. Great article, loved it.

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    • Hi, Ray. Thanks so much for dropping by and checking out the post. You live in such a fascinating part of the world, rife with legends and lore. I loved hearing about the crow roads (great name!). I do recall hearing about shades and various creatures of the nether realms not being able to cross water but wasn’t sure where that belief originated. Like you, I love weaving elements of folklore and old myths into my books. So glad you dropped by to visit!

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      • I suspect the origins of Scots myth are partially Scandinavian and Pictish (who knows where they came from…guesses only) ((Older than history)) and there we find the creepies. Skelig and kelpies, selkies. Shades and Dreads, oh yes there was once a hierarchy of monsters. Lol, no wonder the Scots invented Halloween. The time when the veil between the living and dead grows thin and the dread can rip open the veil and enter our world dragging behind them little monsters, succubus, and incubus. I know, Tis’ all silly but I love it none the less. Thanks for responding…Apreciated.

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      • It might be silly, but I love it too. At least the legend and imagining part. When it comes to the real stuff (despite being a writer of supernatural mysteries), I’m a wuss, LOL. You won’t catch me in a cemetery after dark or in a haunted house. Reading and writing about them, however is another matter. Then it’s bring on the creepies! 🙂

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  9. Fascinating, MC. Thanks for this informative piece – we certainly were a superstitious people, weren’t we? I still do not walk under ladders, although black cats don’t bother me. And I throw some salt over my left shoulder when I spill it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Noelle, I knock on wood, but I have a black cat so that one hardly bothers me. I used to be superstitious about the number 13 but I am slowly outgrowing that one. It helps since my house number is 13! 😁😱😆

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This was a fascinating post, Mae. I’d never heard of corpse roads or coffin stones. It’s understandable how people in those times believed in these things, and to be honest, who says that some of them are not real? I believe there’s so much more going on in this world (and the next) that we are unaware of.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree with your thoughts, Mark. They say that all legends have some basis in truth. It definitely gives you pause and makes you wonder.

      Thanks for visiting. So glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What a fascinating post, Mae! I had no idea this was even a thing! But it does make quite a bit of sense. People didn’t have access to the technology and abilities we have today. They were so limited. I couldn’t imagine walking such long trails with a casket in tow. How sad for those mourners. History is truly incredible and I love learning legends like this one. Thank you for sharing!!

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    • They must have been exceptionally long journeys those mourners made. I can’t imagine such somberness and sadness mixed with carrying the casket all that way, and then worrying about ghosts on top of it!

      I love these old myths too, Mar. So glad you always enjoy them!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Mae, these stories, folklore, myths, and legends are fascinating. I love reading about them. I could see several stories coming from them. Keep posting.

    I often think cemeteries make great scenes for novels. This gives more fuel for that kind of story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Michele, I’m starting to think I’m going to have to use a corpse road in a coming book. Your’e so right that these old myths and legends are the perfect story fodder, and I’ve had a special erm… fondness for this one from the first moment I learned of them.

      So glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

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  13. Pingback: *Press This* Mae Clair’s Cabinet of Curiosities: Corpse Roads #226 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

  14. I LOVE this post, Mae. Corpse roads are places I find absolutely fascinating, along with the magical looking holloways. A story that I’ve long had in my mind is a scary one that features a witch unable to fulfill her harmful mission because she can’t cross water. Hmmm- how can she get around this?

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, Flossie. This legend really resonates with me and I can so see it factoring into a story.
      I’d love to see what you do with your scary witch tale. I wonder how she’ll come up with a workaround for the water crossing! 🤔

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  15. There was a corpse road that tracked close to the summit of Cross Fell, the highest point of the Pennines. In winter it got so dangerous that from time to time coffins were simply left at the wayside, to be reclaimed at the Spring thaw.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Frederick! How great to have you drop by and add to the discussion.
      Fascinating stuff…though I feel terrible for those poor souls who had to wait so long for proper burial. These old legends–and truths–are amazing. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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