Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Corpse Road

by Deborah Swift

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

Puck - A Midsummer Night's Dream

When I was out walking last week I was travelling what is known as a 'coffin route or 'corpse road.'

So what exactly is a 'corpse road'?

In the Middle Ages there were only a few mother churches in England that held burial rights. This meant that when someone died, the corpse had to be transported long distances, sometimes through difficult terrain. Because of the landscape, often a corpse had to be carried miles by the bearers unless the deceased was rich and had left instructions for a horse-drawn bier.

The Fairy Steps, Beetham, a narrow passageway
where coffins were carried to the top of the hill
One well-known funeral way is the one that runs from Rydal to the church in Ambleside in the Lake District where you can still see a coffin stone on which the coffin was placed while the parishioners rested.

Many of the corpse roads are now long gone, but there are clues in the names of footpaths and fields. Fields crossed by church-way paths often had names like "Church-way" or "Kirk-way Field". 

Where I was walking the coffin had to be carried up the side of a limestone rock face known locally as 'the Fairy Steps' because there was no burial ground in Arnside and the coffin had to be carried over the marshes to nearby Beetham.

The coffins were hoisted over the limestone cliffs using metal rings embedded in the rock. In 1866, the church at Arnside was consecrated, and the walk between Arnside and Beetham was no longer necessary.

St Michael's Church, Beetham
I'll digress a little to show you a few pictures of Beetham church, which is a beautiful historic building dating back to Saxon times, with these lovely medieval-style carvings above the door.

The church was also besieged by Parliamentarians in the Civil War in 1647, where local landowners tombs were desecrated by having the heads removed from the statues.

Desecrated tombs

Stained glass window dedicated to Charles I
Beetham Church

But to return to corpse roads - There was much superstition associated with the coffin route. For example, the feet of the corpse had to be be kept pointing away from the family home on its journey to the cemetery, to prevent the deceased wanting to walk back home.

To prevent the dead returning, the route often went over bridges or stepping stones across running water which it was believed spirits would not be able to cross. Sometimes it led over stiles or through various other hazardous locations, such as The Fairy Steps. This was supposed to deter the ghosts from wandering. Ghosts and spirits were an accepted part of everyday life right up until the 20th century. 

The corpse light, the supposed soul of the dead, was supposed to linger on these roads, and there were many accounts of people seeing them.

Deborah Swift is the author of several historical novels.  To read more about her, please visit her website  www.deborahswift.blogspot.com

And to find out more about her books:
The Lady's Slipper
The Gilded Lily
A Divided Inheritance (Oct 2013)


  1. Very interesting article - thanks for that!

  2. Wow, I never new this...thank you for sharing!!

  3. I'm surprised to see you just mention coffins - most people wouldn't be able to afford/obtain them and would be carried in their shrouds, surely?

  4. A marvelous trip to the UK + interesting discussion of burial customs for the better off. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Thank you for this most interesting article!

    Kathy Vorenberg

  6. Hi all, thanks for your lovely comments! - yes Anne, in early times some were unable to afford coffins,and were carried on stretchers but by the 19th century most people were afforded some kind of box provided by charitable means or by the goodwill of their neighbour/landowner as by then it was thought not to be respectable to carry a visible corpse to burial.


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