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.
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.
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?