Britain's Corpse Roads
Corpse roads are just that - a route for transporting the dead to their place of burial. Although there were many small churches dotted about the land, they were usually affiliated to a 'mother' church. It was only these 'mother' churches that held the rights to bury the dead.
Over the centuries the same routes became the regular way for the funeral procession to use and so they became known as corpse roads. Many of these roads were found in rural areas and so travelling along them with a coffin was often a very difficult task - especially in severe winter weather.
There are other names for these roads depending on which part of the country you are in. For example 'coffin road', 'coffin line', 'lyke way', 'lych way'. A number of old churches in England still have original wooden 'lych gates' leading into the church grounds and the old meaning of 'lych' was corpse.
In addition, there are still examples of 'coffin stones' that can be seen on some of the old corpse roads. These stones were used for putting the coffin down while the carriers rested. These stones were vital due to the fact that unless a person was rich and transport was used, poor people had to rely on family and friends to carry their loved one to the cemetery.
Over hundreds of years these roads have inspired legends and folklore about strange creatures and of course ghosts.
Legends and folklore
It has long been believed that spirits, fairies and other supernatural entities travel the earth along specified pathways. In order for them to travel freely the pathways have to be straight - similar to energy or ley lines. In fact some of the corpse roads were called 'ley roads'.
It was usual for these roads to be left clear and homes were never usually built too close to them. It was also believed that fields that had a corpse road running through them would never get crops to grow.
Further beliefs involved preventing the dead from returning to their homes. For example, the coffin would usually be taken feet first, so symbolising the dead walking away from home rather than towards it. In addition, it was widely accepted that spirits could not cross running water. Therefore, the route the corpse road took frequently involved crossing bridges or river stepping stones.
People were also very nervous if a corpse road intersected with cross roads. The area where roads meet already had numerous superstitions and it was widely believed that cross roads were the place where the underworld and physical world met. Adding to the fear was the belief that the devil frequently made appearances at cross roads.
If for some reason the corpse road couldn't be used to carry the deceased, this was deemed to be a bad omen. In centuries past there was nothing that caused greater alarm than the spirits of the dead coming back to haunt family and friends. If the corpse road wasn't or couldn't be used, it was believed that this would enable the spirit of the dead person to return to their home more easily.
Ghosts of the corpse roads
In addition to the superstitions about corpse roads, there are also many accounts of strange things being witnessed along these routes or very near to them. Many stories also tell of horrible ghouls and wailing wraiths stalking the living who dare to venture onto the corpse roads at night.
Corpse candles are one of the main phenomena people are said to encounter. These are either blue or white light formations that take on various shapes. Most are thought to be either owls or other natural phenomena such as gases. However, many people believed that these lights were the spirits of the dead and seeing one often meant another death was imminent. In addition, some of the accounts recorded stated that these lights had a 'human' shape. Again whether this is due to nighttime conditions and/or suggestion is open for debate.
It was also believed that these corpse lights or corpse candles travelled along the corpse road to a house where a person was dying, it would return by the same route back to the cemetery and go into the ground where the burial would take place. These 'spirit' lights were thought to be evil, appearing at night to lead people into dangerous areas never to return. Yet others believed these lights were the souls of unbaptised children.
One area that has a different kind of phenomena is Blackdog Hill, East Sussex, England. This is an area with an old corpse road that may have ran from Ditchling to St. Martin's Church in Westmeston. The legend here is that the ghosts of black dogs are said to protect the corpse road. One phantom dog in particular that is reported to be headless, haunts both the road and surrounding area.
One corpse road in Wasdale,Cumbria in northern England has a very creepy ghost story. The apparition is a woman tied to a horse. The story related to this spirit states that this woman's son had died but as his body was being transferred along the corpse road the horse bolted and was lost. The woman never recovered and she herself died. While her body was being transported, it is said that this horse also bolted into a snowstorm and was never recovered. Her son's body was eventually found and given burial, but his mother is said to still haunt the corpse road looking for him.
I hope you've enjoyed this tour of the corpse roads and their history. If anyone has any stories they would like to share then let us know in the comments section.
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Helen Murphy Howell