Illustration from “Death’s Doings” by Richard Dagley (1827) (via British Library)
Funerals in the Middle Ages were very DIY. Not only did you personally tend to your loved one’s decomposing corpse, you had to carry it all the way to the churchyard. And for many medieval citizens, that could be quite a journey.
Churches at the time were very protective of their flocks, both living and dead. When a parishioner died, they wanted him or her interred with all the rituals of the parish church. They also wanted the money that having those burial rights entailed. Yet as communities were growing more spread out, this meant the parish church could be miles from your home. Thus was born the corpse road, also known as the coffin road, bier way, church way, lych way, or burial road. These paths connected villages to the cemetery.
Coffin road to Loch Shiel (photograph by Peter Van den Bossche)
Old Corpse Road in Cumbria (photograph by morebyless/Flickr user)
Corpse road between Wasdale & Eskdale in the Lake District (photograph by Alan Cleaver)
While many of these roads have disappeared, either through development or their names being lost over the years, some remain in the UK and the Netherlands. For example the Old Corpse Road still connects the Swindale Head with Mardale in the Lake District. One reason some survived over the centuries is their remoteness. No one wanted rotting bodies hauled through their front yards, so the roads were set up on windswept hills and overgrown pastures where no one wanted to go.
There was also a wealth of superstition that guided the design of the corpse roads, and helps makes them identifiable today. According to this 1977 article in New Scientist, the dead “were carried along strictly defined corpse roads for the belief was that coffins sterilised [sic] the land because the dead were forced to walk that way until their souls were purged.” The roads proceeded right through the terrain, even if a river stood in its way, as many believed spirits traveled in straight lines. As Puck utters in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream: “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.”
Cross on the corpse road near Todmorden (photograph by Tim Green)
Ghost stories still linger over corpse roads, with supposed sightings of phantom lights in the night. But they don’t need any mythology to make them spooky places. Walking along the roads, you might still see coffin stones where the corpses were placed when their carriers needed a rest, or crosses carved in rock. All corpse roads also ended in one place: the lych gates of the church that opened to the cemetery, the end of the road.
Lych gate at St. Thomas’ Church in Lincolnshire (photograph by Ian Paterson)