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?