Theyare known by many names: coffin roads,church-ways, funeral paths, corpse roads – all leading from a remote Englishvillage to the lych gates of the Mother church, many miles away.
Corpseroads came about during medieval times when villages were locating farther andfarther afield. Canon law of the periodstated 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.
Eightmen would take turns carrying the body along the corpse road. Four men, one ateach corner, would carry the deceased until they came to a coffin stone. These stones were laid out along the road atset intervals and designated as a place to lay the bier. Then the other fourmen would step in and continue carrying the deceased while the first fourfollowed with the funeral procession and rested.
Corpse roads were usually straight since they were the most direct route from the village to the burial grounds. Some were only a couple of miles; others wereclose to ten miles long. It was believedthat any field used as a coffin road would fail to produce good crops. And, they were also associated with spirits,wraiths and ghosts.
Although fences walls and buildings were notallowed to obstruct the corpse roads, usually at least one stream, river ormarsh could be found crossing a coffin road. Legend said that by carrying the deceased over running water, they couldnot return home and haunt the living.
Manytimes corpse lights or corpse candles would be seen traveling these paths,flitting low to the ground. It wasbelieved that the sprits of the dead traveled close to the earth in a straightline that connected the village and the cemetery. Some said that the lights would travel to thedying person’s house the night before the death, then return to the cemeteryand disappear into the ground where the burial would take place.
Otherphenomena related to corpse roads include will-o’ the wisps, also known asfoolish fire, or Jack o’ lanterns. Travelers saw these ghostly lights at night. Folklore stated that these flickering lightswere the spirits of the dead, trying to lead travelers astray. Some legends identified them as the spiritsof unbaptized or stillborn children caught between heaven and hell.
Crossroads,where two roads intersected each other, were also considered dangerous on acorpse road because they were viewed as a location where the world and theunderworld met. It was believed that theDevil could appear at a crossroad. Crosses were placed at intersections – hencecross roads, to protect those passingfrom the Devil and wayward spirits. Later, witch balls were also hung along theroad. A witch ball was a bottle orenclosed circle of glass that contained threads and charms inside. These were used to catch and tangle passingspirits, trapping their evil or negative energy inside.
Once the funeral procession arrived at the burialground, they would proceed to the lych gates. (Lych is the Old English word for corpse.) Located at the entrance tothe church property, the lych gates were constructed like a porch with a roofover them. Clergy would meet themourners at these gates and assume responsibility for the body, preparing itfor the burial service.
Today, corpse roads are still visible throughoutEngland, the Netherlands and Ireland. Although it has been centuries since they have been used for theiroriginal purpose, the rockiness and remoteness of these burial roads mightstill make it preferable to stay clear of the paths at night.
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