Corpse roads are routes that once carried the dead from their old residences to the graveyards in which they were to be buried. Even today, these eerie paths are feared by those who believe they are still used by wraiths and wandering spirits.
Often several miles long, corpse roads became a common feature of the British landscape during the late medieval period, before newer community churches were granted burial rights. Prior to this, the deceased had to be transported to older, more established parish churches. On their journey, bearers did not deter from the established paths for fear of cursing the surrounding farmland.
Although many are now lost, some corpse roads can be identified by field names such as ‘kirk way’ and by landmarks like crosses, lych gates or coffin stones, which were used to rest a coffin rather than allow a spirit to meet the ground. Some popular footpaths and bridleways may have originally been corpse roads and it’s commonly assumed that any path used to carry a corpse, by virtue, became a public right of way.
It was widely believed that spirits travelled in straight lines, were trapped by labyrinths or crossroads and could not pass through water so, to prevent the deceased returning to haunt their old dwellings, British corpse roads often meandered and crossed a stream or river. Superstition also led to corpses being carried with their feet facing away from the direction of their home so that they would not return.
Some claim to have witnessed corpse candles along the old church ways, supposedly appearing as blue flames like whisps and representing a spirit or foretelling a death. While barn owls and natural gases have been blamed for this phenomenon more recently, plays such as Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream demonstrate that these fantasies of mischievous spirits clearly made popular storytelling in the late 1500s.