Of Corpse Roads and Corpse Lights

With the approach of Halloween, it seems a most propitious time to discuss an ancient set of British superstitions which relate to apparitions and phantoms associated with death and the dead. Corpse lights were most often seen along corpse roads, so it makes sense to address the two phenomena together. Regency authors may wish to use either, or both, of these superstitions to add a touch of the supernatural to a tale of romance set in our favorite decade.

Of corpse roads and corpse lights through the Regency . . .

The concept of corpse roads grew up in Britain in the later Middle Ages, when a steady increase in population pushed people out from the town centers where the original Christian "mother" churches, or minsters, were situated. For generations, only these original churches had churchyards, and, more importantly, the right to bury the dead. Therefore, when someone died in an outlying village or farm, it would be necessary to carry their corpse to the nearest mother church for burial. They could not be legally buried in the churchyard of their local church. Over the centuries, it became traditional to carry any corpse from a village to the nearest mother church yard for burial, using the same route.

As with many things associated with the dead, various beliefs grew up around these pathways over which corpses were carried. Most of the dead were not wealthy, so they had to rely on their family and friends to carry their bodies to the mother church for burial. Only the wealthy could afford wheeled transport for their dead. Therefore, most of these roadways were made as straight and direct as possible. Since it was generally thought that fairies and supernatural spirits also used these paths, making them as straight as possible would also ensure the otherworldly entities would be able to travel freely and would be less likely to detour into the realm of humans. Any field which was crossed by a traditional path to a burial yard was usually not put under cultivation, since it was believed that no crops would grow there. It was left to the growth of indigenous plants, often then used as pasture. Typically, these corpse roads were left fairly clear of construction; homes or other buildings were generally not built near them.

The most common exception to any kind of construction near a corpse road were large, flat-topped boulders or stones, placed along the route. These stones, known as coffin stones, were intended as temporary resting places for the heavy coffin, to give those carrying it a brief respite during their journey. The more rugged the terrain which a corpse road crossed, the more coffin stones were likely to be placed along the way. It was common for the funeral party to pause and say a few prayers while the coffin was resting on each coffin stone. A related practice was the construction of what was known as a lych gate at the entrance to most churchyards. The name of these gates derived from the Old English word, lich or lych, which meant a body or corpse. The majority of these gates were constructed after 1550, because the 1549 edition of the Book of Common Prayer required that the priest meet the corpse of the deceased at the churchyard entrance. Should the funeral procession arrive at the churchyard before the priest was there to receive them, they would be required to wait at the gate until his arrival. Therefore, most lych gates were built with a roof under which the coffin and the bearers could be at least partially sheltered from inclement weather until the arrival of the priest made it possible to continue the funeral procession into the churchyard. Some of the more elaborate lych gates included a coffin stone or a small stone platform on which the coffin could be placed, in order to keep it off the ground until the priest arrived.

There were additional superstitions which governed the route of a corpse road and how the coffin was to be carried along it. Most of those superstitions were related to methods which would ensure the spirit of the deceased could not return to their home after burial. As noted above, the corpse road should be as straight as possible, to be sure both the spirit and the body of the deceased efficiently completed its journey to the graveyard. In addition, the corpse road should cross at least one body of running water, such as a creek or stream, since it was widely supposed that spirits could not cross running water, even with the aid of stepping stones, a bridge or a ferry. It was also important for the bearers to carry the coffin so that the feet went first. In this way, the body would travel along the corpse road as though symbolically walking away from its home, rather than towards it. For generations there have been numerous superstitions regarding cross roads, depending upon the specific locality, since a cross road was thought to be the point at which the underworld and the physical world could most readily come into contact with one another. One of the most widely held fears was that the devil often appeared at cross roads. Should a corpse road cross another road, the members of the funeral party would be very apprehensive and the party would cross the other road as quickly as possible. One or more members of the party might perform a ritual or say a special prayer for their safe passage, depending upon what was customary in that specific area. However, the most concerning issue to any funeral party would be if there was some impediment which prevented them from carrying the body of the deceased to the burial ground along the traditional corpse road. If the coffin was not carried along the corpse road, it was generally assumed that there was a much stronger chance the spirit of the deceased would find the path by which to return to their home and remain there to haunt their family.

By the seventeenth century, many rural churches had begun to demand more autonomy from the original, mother churches in their regions. In particular, those smaller, outlying churches wanted the right to bury their parishioners in their local churchyards. Even into the eighteenth century, a few of the original Christian mother churches still fought to retain the right to bury the dead only in their churchyards. This was primarily because they believed the loss of that right would reduce the amount money they were able to collect for funeral services. However, the hold those mother churches had on burying rights began to weaken and by the end of the eighteenth century, nearly every church in Great Britain had been granted the right to bury the dead from their parish in their own churchyards. Once those rights were granted, and people could be buried in the grave yard at their local church, most corpse roads were not longer used solely for the transport of the deceased. By the Regency, some of those old corpse roads had been abandoned, while others were in use as simple roadways. In a number of rural areas, there were often at least a few older folks who remembered the traditional corpse roads. Some of them may well have shared the folklore and superstitions associated with those old pathways among the younger members of their communities.

Corpse roads were widely thought to be the favorite haunts of corpse lights in many regions of the British Isles. These small, mysterious balls of light were also known as corpse candles, fetch lights or dead men’s candles. In centuries past, the word fetch has had several meanings, one of which was an apparition, wraith, or supernatural facsimile of a living person. These mysterious lights were often likened to candles, since they were generally thought to resemble a candle flame. Regardless of what they were called, these strange lights were considered omens of imminent death in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, as well as many of the shires of England, particularly those in the north. These lights were only seen at night, usually in remote rural areas, floating along just above the path of a corpse road or in a graveyard.

Each locale had its own specific beliefs with regard to the appearance of these lights. In general, they were thought to appear in an area prior to the death of one or more of the local residents. Depending upon local beliefs, the appearance of the light might be just the night before, or up to a month before a person was to lose their life. The appearance of single light was the portent of a single death, but should more than one light be seen, that was thought to be a harbinger of the number of deaths equal to the number of lights which appeared. Corpse lights were seen in a few different colors, usually blue, white or red. In most regions, if the light seen was blue, then it foretold the death of an infant or a young child, while a red light was often thought to signal the death of an elderly person. A white light was almost universally thought to herald the death of an adult. In some areas, the brilliancy of the light also had meaning, with larger or brighter lights believed to signify the death of a man rather than that of a woman. Corpse lights often vanished if someone approached them. However, it was generally thought that it was not dangerous to anyone to meet a corpse light, so long as the person who saw it did not attempt to touch it. Attempting to touch the light might cause it to deviate from its intended path and thereby, instead cause the death of the person who encountered it.

Corpse lights were strongly associated with Wales, where they were believed to appear within a few days of an impending death. According to an ancient legend, St. David, the patron saint of Wales, had promised his people that they would not die without some prior notice, giving them time to prepare for their passing. Corpse lights were widely understood among the Welsh to be that warning from St. David. The lights would bob along the corpse road, between the graveyard and the home of the person who was soon to die, then return to the graveyard and hover over the place where that person would eventually be buried. By the Regency, when corpse roads had mostly fallen into disuse, the corpse lights would traverse the route the funeral of the deceased would be expected to take.

In most of the northern English counties, the corpse lights were thought to appear and hover in front of the home of the person who was soon to die, but they did not always move along the route of the funeral. In some of the counties further south, it was believed the lights would usually appear near the place where the death would occur, sometimes while that person was present at that location. In these counties, the corpse lights were less likely to move along a corpse road or the path of the funeral. However, in Hampshire, one of the southern-most English counties, corpse lights were not thought to be a herald of imminent death. Rather, they were believed to accompany the soul of a deceased person, from death until that soul finally departed the earth. The light would be seen in the vicinity of the deceased person’s home while the body was prepared for burial. After the funeral, that same light might then be seen gently bobbing over the grave in the churchyard, until that soul passed on into the afterlife. The corpse light would then vanish into the ground at the gravesite.

Among some Celtic peoples, including the Irish and the Scots, these lights were also sometimes believed to be supernatural spirits roaming the earth, often hoping to tempt travelers from their path and into some kind of mischief. Other groups thought the lights were the confused spirits of children who had been stillborn, or who had died before being baptized, flitting between heaven and hell, trying to find their place. A number of names were applied to these mysterious lights by many groups of people, including Joan of the Wad, Will o’ the Wisp, Spunkie, Jenny Burn-tail, Kitty wi’ the Whisp, or Jack O’Lantern.

So many people saw these corpse lights over the course of the centuries that it is necessary to consider how this mysterious phenomenon was able to manifest. One possibility is that the lights were actually pockets of methane gas which had spontaneously ignited. Such gas would have been generated by the decomposition of organic material in swamps, bogs and marshes. Another possible explanation is that these moving lights may have been due to fungal bio-luminescence, commonly known as foxfire or fairy fire. More specifically, barn owls are known to have a luminescence over some or all of their feathers, which they probably acquired from contact with the fungus. Barn owls are one of the most widely distributed species of owls in the British Isles. They are generally nocturnal, hunting primarily at night. Because they locate their prey, small mammals, by sound, they tend to hunt close to the ground. Thus, a barn owl which had brushed against a bio-luminescent fungus, and was hunting mice while flying close to the ground, might well be misinterpreted as a corpse light. A few people believe that glow worms were the sources of these curious lights, while others blamed static electricity.

Dear Regency Authors, might an ancient corpse road, or perhaps a corpse light or two, add a touch of the supernatural to an upcoming tale of romance? Perhaps a very gloomy and pessimistic character believes they are soon going to die, after catching sight of a strange light outside their house, or hovering over the family plot in the local graveyard. Or, might a young mother, who recently lost an infant, be convinced that a light she sees at night is the spirit of her lost child. How will the heroine, or the hero, help that young mother come to terms with her grief? Mayhap a malicious old woman tries to frighten away the heroine, who regularly uses an abandoned corpse road as a short cut between her home and the local church. Why did the old woman want to keep the girl away, what could she be hiding? Are there other ways in which a corpse road or a few corpse lights might add a hint of the other-worldly to a Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Of Corpse Roads and Corpse Lights

  1. my initial thought is of a prank perpetrated by a little hellion who looks like an angel with golden curls and neat skeleton suit, setting fire to his uncle’s best brandy poured on the ground to make corpse lights of his own devising

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      The little rascal! 😉

      Somehow, it seems worse when a prank is perpetrated by one who looks so good and above such things. And, of course, he would choose his uncle’s best brandy, not some cheap gin or wine spirits. I think there is a lot of promise in that plot bunny!

      Regards,

      Kat

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