Note of Warning: This topic includes dark themes and may not be appropriate for those under the age of thirteen.
Corpse Roads weren’t just passageways that the English peasantry took in order to transport their dead to consecrated ground. They also serve as a reminder that Halloween superstitions were an everyday occurrence in medieval times. Be careful where you walk this spooky season, as lost spirits might just be walking alongside you.
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- Intro Music was produced by me, with the help of SoundTrap.com.
- Background Music: Nuclearjesus - Sodiac - The Finches | https://soundcloud.com/sodiacofficial | https://freesound.org/people/nuclearjesus/sounds/563348/
- If you would like to know more about Corpse Roads, check out the book ‘The Corpse Roads of Cumbria: Featured Walks along the County’s Ancient Paths’ by Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park.
Hello my friends, to a very special episode of your favorite spooky history podcast, Strange Origins. As we all know, it’s October, finally. And after I got done listening to my All Hallows Eve playlist on Spotify all the way through, I sat down and began really contemplating what my Halloween episode would be about.
Since I have already dedicated an episode to the basic history of Halloween, and I’m sure a lot of you already know the history of the holiday itself, I wanted to jump into a subject that, in my opinion, has contributed to the overall vibe of October 31st. While it may not seem like it at first glance, the history of corpse roads actually has a lot in common with the customs we have been teaching for Halloween for close to a thousand years now.
So while you are probably familiar with a lot of different versions of a funerary procession, you’re probably wondering what exactly a corpse road is? Well, before modern transportation and the wonders of funeral homes, it was common in medieval times for villages in England to transport the bodies of those who passed on to the graveyard of a mother church, which was a church equipped to handle funerals.
Why Corpse Roads?
In the medieval ages, death was a much more prevalent part of life. And it was much more of a public event when someone died, seeing as communities were much smaller and relied on one another for a lot more. If you were beloved and respected by the people in your town, hopefully, you were transported to a mother church where they would bury your body in a way that would grant you a ticket to the pearly gates. Another way of showing respect for you and your family would be to transport you in a way that made sure that your spirit wouldn’t travel back to haunt your ancestral home, or worse, go wandering off into nothingness.
The Middle Ages were a pretty lengthy time span, ranging from the Fall of Rome in 476 to the beginnings of the Renaissance in the 1600s. And during that time, Roman Catholicism had a pretty firm grip on Europe. In England at the time, modern religion had its eye on exterminating the practices of paganism for good. By erasing what they deemed were heretical beliefs, they hoped to replace them, in common people and royalty alike, with that of Catholicism.
A requirement of burials at the time in the Catholic church was that you bury your dead in consecrated ground. Unfortunately in the middle ages, very few mother churches had been built, and the population of England was much more spaced out than that of those consecrated grounds. While they could have created more local cemeteries to be able to bury their dead, it was important financially to the church that the services took place at the mother churches. So to be able to allow a practicing Catholic, which was pretty much everyone since it was the national church of England at the time, it would require those still living to be able to transport the body to the church. This, more often than not, meant that they needed to be carried by hand. So if you lived in a rural area of England, it was pretty much a requirement that you carry your deceased to the nearest church, which could be up to ten miles away.
This eventually led to the creation of small, oftentimes lengthy paths. Through time those paths garnered the nickname of corpse roads. They were also referred to as coffin roads, burial roads, or even church ways for those wishing to use a less grotesque term.
Today it doesn’t take a second thought to decide that when grandma or grandpa when the time comes, should be transported to the cemetery by way of a car. But in the Middle Ages people weren’t afforded that luxury. If you weren’t a wealthy individual, you weren’t going to be able to afford transportation like a horse or a buggy for your trip to the mother church.
Two sets of four men would take turns carrying the occupied coffin over the corpse road, to allow the other four men some rest along the way. I imagine it was a pretty slow trudge through what, based on my knowledge of the weather in England, would be a cold wind or pouring rain.
Through time they realized that they would need resting stops at some point or another, so peasants soon started placing what is called Coffin Stones. Essentially they were just large boulders that were shaped in a way that the coffins could be rested there easily. It was there that they could then pass over the duty of carrying to the other four men, and hopefully, take a drink of something warm during the break.
Today you can still see some of these coffin stones. On the way from Keld to Grinton, the road nicknamed Swaledale Corpse Way curved around for about sixteen miles. Along the path, you can find huge flat stones that would have served as a coffin stone about a thousand years ago.
A particularly famous coffin stone was featured in a legend originating from Devon, which is the South-West of England. The story told of a funeral procession heading from Dartmoor to Widecombe, where the corpse in question was an old man who was a fairly disliked member of his community seeing as he had been such a monster to his neighbors. When they reached a coffin stone to lay down the old man and take a break, it was at that very second that lightning struck the stone and engulfed the coffin in flames. While the men carrying the old man jumped out of the way, the lightning strike was so powerful that it even cracked the coffin stone in half. The men came to the conclusion afterward that it was simply God's will that the evil old man wouldn’t be buried in consecrated ground, which meant that he wasn’t going to be allowed into Heaven.
There is a stone that people visit today that is believed to be the coffin stone from this same story. It is, in fact, cracked down the middle and there are even etchings of what historians believe are the initials of those corpses that were once laid on the coffin stones. Among others, an SC, and an AC were documented, which are thought to be the initials of a Samuel Caunter and an Aaron Cleave.
One of the reasons for using large flat boulders as resting spots for the deceased was the superstition referred to as Fear Gorta. Originating in Ireland, the myth goes that Fear Gorta is a starving, emaciated man who is the personification of hunger. In Yeat’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, Fear Gorta will seek alms from those who pass by him in times of famine. Sometimes he can be a harbinger of bad times to come, and therefore a warning to people to stock up on food for the future. Fear Gorta can also be translated to mean hungry grass, as it is said to grow in places where an occupied coffin has been rested. Anyone who stands on the grass after that is said to develop a hunger that is all-consuming and can kill you if you aren’t fed immediately. A woman in Ballinamore was even said to have a constant supply of food on hand for people who passed through such a patch near her house.
Rules for Transporting the Dead
Something that has always fascinated me in researching history was just how widely our funerary traditions have changed, and just how distinctive different cultures' funerary traditions are. But it seems that in most of those traditions, there is one major aspect to consider. And that is; how do you keep the spirit of the deceased from getting lost on Earth? Or even worse, haunting the living?
When it came to transporting someone who had recently died through a corpse road, there were a few rules you had to follow. Firstly, the design of the road itself had to be intentional, as it couldn’t wind or curve too much. Generally speaking, it was believed that the straighter the line, the less likely a spirit was of getting lost or trapped. This was because it was a generally accepted theory that the more round or winding the lines of an object or road, the better it was to trap evil spirits in.
Another rule that was always followed was that the feet of the deceased had to always be pointing away from the direction of its family home, and towards the cemetery, it was to be buried in. If they weren’t, it was thought that the spirit would travel back and haunt its family members. It was also customary for there to be at least one stream of water, whether it was a river or a marsh, that the body could cross during its journey. That also ensured that the spirit couldn’t return back home.
While there could be natural boundaries, and the coffins were allowed to be placed on stones, fences, walls, or buildings were not allowed to be built anywhere near the corpse roads. It was also considered very bad luck to plant crops by corpse roads, as country folklore stated that if a dead body was carried over a field it would fail to produce good crop yields. The trek wasn’t just dangerous for the deceased or for nearby landowners. To be a pallbearer make the trek meant putting your own life at risk.
An old wives tale that I found interesting came from a book titled From a Dartmoor Window by Beatrice Chase. In this story, Chase related how in the early 1900’s she was once told of a burial procession of about 90 pallbearers who all traveled a corpse road together. When they reached the Widecombe church, an old woman told two of the men, who were brothers, that they shouldn’t make the trek with two men who were of close blood relation. While they laughed it off that day, it was only a week later, according to the story, that one of the brothers died.
The living put a lot of effort towards helping ensure a safe journey for their deceased ones. This was largely in part due to a pretty widespread belief in what they referred to as revenants, which were, in a nutshell, either ghosts or reanimated corpses, depending on the story. Because of these superstitions and the belief that it was pretty easy for a spirit to get lost on its journey across a corpse road, they are believed today to be haunted places. Spirits, wraiths, ghosts, whatever you want to call them, it seems that corpse roads were a hotspot for hauntings and mysterious sights.
A subject that is often cited as being related to corpse roads is Will-o’-the-Wisps. This phenomenon has been referred to by a lot of different names in the past, including Jack-O-Lantern. In 1660’s English, a wisp would have been a bundle of sticks or paper that you would start a fire with, so, just another form of a lantern. Essentially, they are small, floating lights that are known to lead travelers away from their intended paths and into danger. Some cultures believe they are fairies. Others believe they are ghosts. In the Scottish Highlands, the Will-o’-the-Wisps took the form of a linkboy, who were young boys who carried a lantern or flaming torch along the way for those traveling in the dark, for a fee of course.
Will-o’-the-Wisps show up in different cultures under very different names. There is the St. Louis Ghost Train in Saskatchewan, Canada, the Spooklight in Missouri, the Marfa Lights in Texas, Mekong in Thailand, or the Hessdalen Light in Norway. One of the more popular versions of the stories for a Will-o’-the-Wisp, though, is that it is a lost spirit. While the story's location is sometimes a cemetery, a commonplace you can encounter a Will-o’-the-Wisp is while traveling a road. For those particular spirits, they are more specifically referred to as Corpse Candles.
Another fascinating concept that relates to corpse roads is that of crossroads. While you may only think of deals with the Devil or the 2002 film featuring Britney Spears, crossroads had a serious purpose in the eyes of religion in the Medieval period. Up until 1823, it was common in the UK that burials for those who had died by way of suicide, or who were executed criminals, should take place under a crossroads. This was for a few reasons. The first was that crossroads were considered public land. Since no one wanted to pay for a funeral that didn’t include an entry to heaven, it was also advantageous that it was free to bury someone there.
The second reason was that it was believed to be a great place to trap a spirit where they wouldn’t come back to haunt the living. As I mentioned, straight roads to a cemetery meant it was less likely for a spirit to get lost on its way to heaven, but if the spirit didn’t know which way to go at a crossroads, they were essentially stuck there forever, or so it was believed.
A fairly famous story of a crossroads grave is that of Kitty Jay, who was buried in Dartmoor. Though there aren’t any records of Kitty, which isn’t surprising seeing as she wasn’t recognized by the church, it’s said that she was a local girl who became pregnant out of wedlock and committed suicide, forcing her to be buried at a crossroad. After a workman found bones at that spot in 1860, they were reburied in a more respectful location. Today it’s thought to be good luck to leave flowers on her grave.
According to history, crossroads were also a popular place for hangings to be held, as it would help to further confuse the spirit of those offenders in the afterlife. It’s also a rumor that the only reason public hangings were banned from happening at crossroads was that George IV was held up by a crowd who had gathered to watch an execution, and he was simply just annoyed at being inconvenienced.
Corpse Roads Today
Eventually, the strict laws of the church changed and grew and Corpse Road superstitions no longer had to be followed. Men were no longer forced to make dangerous trips carrying a body down rocky paths, and unwed mothers and victims of mental illness were no longer punished at crossroads. Corpse roads became small dirt paths and signs were erected at more crossroads that gave people, and hopefully a few spirits, directions as to where to go.
That doesn’t mean that we aren’t still affected by the rituals of the past. While Corpse Roads are outdated, the superstitions that surrounded them have managed to survive in some form or another. That is, until Halloween rolls around and we find ourselves excited for the night in which spirits are allowed to make their way home.
We still have a lot to learn from excavations that are happening today, not just in England. Today Corpse Roads are still walkable in certain places, and signs of life, and of death, are being discovered all the time. While we usually associate erected crosses or names like “Church-way” as good signs of whether or not a road leads to a church, it’s really monuments like coffin stones that tell us the history of how people just like us had to handle death, bereavement, and remembrance.
Corpse roads are fascinating to me because they tell the story of the everyday person. The people who traveled down those roads, both as pall-bearers and as the deceased, weren’t famous or even well-known beyond what I assume would have been quaint close-knit villages. They were normal people with problems that we can relate to now in more ways than we probably realize. If you weren’t famous or rich or royalty, your time on Earth most likely wasn’t well recorded by way of word or artwork. That’s why it’s so important that we look for clues as to the rituals and beliefs of our past because we can always find a way in which they have survived in unexpected ways. While religion had a firm grip on England in the middle ages, the traditions of old were still celebrated, the same way that Halloween is still celebrated today with the same amount of enthusiasm and fear.
As Puck from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night’s Dream said, “Now it is the time of night that the graves all gaping wide/ every one lets forth his sprite/ in the church-way paths to glide.’
Thank you so much for listening to forty episodes of Strange Origins, my friends. Stay safe out there this spooky season, and don’t forget to keep it strange.
This episode is a Fascinating Productions Halloween feature. If you would like to learn more about Strange Origins or my other podcast, American Mythos, be sure to go to FascinatingPodcasts.com. I will be publishing another Halloween-themed episode focused on Rhode Island's resident Vampire, Mercy Brown over on my Patreon. There will be a link to that in the show notes. And if you enjoy spooky memes, go follow me on Instagram @StrangeOriginsPodcast, I would love to get to know you more!
Happy Halloween everyone!