Corpse roads might conjure up weird mental images of highways paved with the dead, or possibly byways only used by them. But they’re actually more straightforward than they sound.
In days gone by, remote communities often had nowhere nearby to put their dead. Only the churches held burial rights, but they could be miles away from the smaller villages. Corpse roads connected the graveyards to the small communities, granting access to consecrated ground.
In the UK, corpse roads are sometimes called burial roads, funeral roads, or lych ways. As you can imagine, they’ve become pretty associated with wraiths and ghosts.
The name pretty much says it all.
If you’d rather listen, hit play below. Otherwise, keep reading…
Come with me. Let’s take a walk along the old corpse roads…
The photo above is a corpse road in Cumbria. Until 1736, the community of Mardale carried their dead along the corpse road to Shap’s burial ground.
In 1736, the town gained the new Holy Trinity church, allowing the burial of Mardale’s dead closer to home. But just look at that photo. The sheep don’t seem particularly bothered by any spectres.
Mardale itself now lies at the bottom of the Haweswater Reservoir. The authorities submerged the village in 1939. They transferred 97 sets of remains from the churchyard to Shap.
Seems the dead of Mardale were destined to lie in Shap come hell or high water – literally.
A lot of the old corpse roads now only exist as footpaths. For the latter, few remember or know their original purpose. Sometimes fields give them away, especially if they’re called something like “Church-way”.
But it usually takes a combination of old maps, local knowledge and the occasional legend to plot their course. Atlas Obscura point out the locals didn’t want rotting bodies carried across their land. That explains the remoteness of the paths.
According to Philippa Waring, land becomes a public right of way if a corpse is carried over it (1978: 66). And Wm. Self. Weeks notes a belief in East Lancashire that the passage of three funerals over a road made it a public highway (1928: 393). It’s not enshrined in British law so it’s probably a holdover from the time when the only people using the paths were pallbearers.
Weeks also believes the adoption of hearses even by “the poorer classes” led to the decline in corpse roads (1928: 395). On top of that, the Enclosure Awards divided ‘common land’ up. Many boundaries cut across corpse roads and mourners had to be persuaded to use actual highways.
How do corpse roads link to folklore?
There are certainly plenty of tales surrounding them. Superstitions ran a lot higher in days gone by. People believed spirits travelled in straight lines. One way to stop ghosts returning to their home involved taking a meandering route to the graveyard. That possibly explains why corpse roads gently wend their way through the countryside instead of taking a direct route.
Many feared bad luck if a different path had to be followed, for whatever reason. This is possibly due to the fact that the corpse had to be taken along an actual corpse road to prevent them returning home later on.
Then you have the corpse candle, particularly associated with Wales. People believe it travels along the route from the cemetery to the dying person’s house and back again. Seen as an omen, the lights allegedly appeared on the night before a death when the spirit traced the path to the cemetery in advance.
As with most legends, some confuse these corpse light with the will-o’-the-wisp, a mischievous spirit that tried to lead travellers astray (often into marshes). Kira Butler has an excellent post on these corpse lights. To play Scully for a moment, the possibility remains that such lights did exist…produced by the methane gas produced by decomposition.
Apparently, barn owls can also be luminescent in some instances, so perhaps the locals just saw glow-in-the dark birds.
Other legends abound. According to Legendary Dartmoor, mourners carried the corpses feet first, so they pointed away from their home. Sometimes the road would cross bridges or stepping stones, since spirits couldn’t cross running water. A lot of effort went into making sure the dead didn’t come back to haunt the living. It’s almost the total opposite to the attitude towards the deceased in Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations.
The Coffin Rest
Some of the corpse roads featured coffin stones to allow mourners to set the coffin down while they rested. The coffin therefore didn’t touch the ground, which apparently stopped the spirit from wandering off!
Lamplugh in Cumbria is one such location to boast a coffin rest, also known as a corpse cross. It’s near the church and gave pallbearers somewhere to put the coffin while they caught their breath.
Depending on the route, some pallbearers might have carried the coffin for up to twelve miles. There’s another coffin rest in Grasmere, once home to William Wordsworth. While it’s a different style, it performed the same function as the one in Lamplugh.
There’s also another form of coffin rest from the 18th century. Churches might have a ‘parish coffin’ to be used by the very poor. Their family wrapped them in a shroud and borrowed the parish coffin to carry them to their grave.
The family buried the body but returned the coffin to a ‘rest’ in the churchyard. Right until the next person needed it.
A lot of the surviving corpse roads are just meandering paths now, their original purpose lost in the mists of time. But for those that still have their crosses and coffin stones, they remain a slightly eerie pathway through the English landscape.
Would you ever follow a corpse road? Let me know in the comments!
Interested in corpse roads? I wrote a short story about one, which you can find in your free copy of my short story collection, Harbingers: Dark Tales of Speculative Fiction! Download it below.
Waring, Philippa (1978), Dictionary of Omens and Superstitions, London: Souvenir Press.
Weeks, Wm. Self. (1928), ‘Public Right of Way Believed to Be Created by the Passage of a Corpse’, Folklore, 39: 4, pp. 393–398.
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