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08/17/2005 Archived Entry: "Corpse Roads"
Detail from the jacket of Constable Along the Trail
Even in modern times, there is a lingering belief that any portion of the countryside, even private property, over which a dead human body is carried, automatically becomes a public right of way. This belief is centuries old but even within the last hundred years or so in this country, relics of that supposition could still be found in routes known as Corpse Way, Corpse Road or even Church Road, Church Lane or Church Gate.
In remote areas, the bodies of deceased persons often had to be transported many miles to the nearest church and at times it meant crossing difficult terrain via narrow and steep pathways. For this reason, bodies were frequently carried by bearers rather than horse-drawn vehicles. In many instances, coffins were not used and so the bodies were carried in large slings, then buried in shrouds. Routes regularly used for this purpose became known as Corpse Ways or Corpse Roads, and over the years would develop a fairly solid base so that, where possible, horse-drawn vehicles could carry the burden at least some of the way.
Superstitions associated with death meant that if a funeral procession took another route, perhaps due to snow or floods, then bad luck would attend those who used that route and the deceased would never be fully at rest in the grave. Similarly, it was considered ill-mannered or even unlucky to obstruct the passage of a corpse. This meant that funeral processions always endeavoured to follow well-established corpse routes, however difficult they might be. In the dales and moors, there are stories of funeral processions coping with atrocious conditions in blizzards, snow and floods simply to follow the local corpse way. This was done because private landowners did not want the body passing across their land due to the old tradition that such a route would thereafter be a public right of way.
Even if it was considered ill-mannered or unlucky to obstruct a funeral procession, there are tales of battles between the staff of landowners and mourning families trying to carry bodies over private land and, of course, there were also tales of funerals attempting to pass over private land deliberately to establish a right of way. In the past, however, most landowners and farmers were sensitive enough to permit a funeral procession to cross their land in an emergency even at the risk of local people using it as a public route.
The fact is, however, that there is absolutely no legal ruling to support this belief and yet, over the centuries, the notion has persisted. In 1935, there was a case (Belton v Nicholas) which formally disposed of this old tradition; it was heard at Haverfordwest County Court and brought a legal end to this ancient idea. Nonetheless, despite of that case, the idea has persisted even into modern times.
A variation of this belief was that it was unlucky for a corpse to cross a bridge whilst another said it was unlucky if the corpse crossed a bridge twice. Yet another problem arose with toll roads and toll bridges, some believing that if a corpse passed through a toll, then the owners would never again be allowed to make a charge.
A similar superstition said that if a body was carried across a ploughed field, the field would never produce a very successful crop while even today, some believe that a corpse should always be carried out of the house feet first, and always through the front door. In some instances, it was thought the body should always travel sunwise and some funerals would make a circuit around a church before entering.
Corpse routes, however, are not quite the same thing as churchways. In some cases, access to the parish church was across private land, often owned by the local estate or perhaps by a farmer, and permission was given for churchgoers to cross this land but only to gain access to the church. Such a route was not necessarily a right of way, however, chiefly because it was restricted to parishioners and churchgoers. Some attempts to reclassify such churchways as rights of way have failed.
I recall a case when the bodies of seven sailors were found near Sandsend, not far from Whitby. This was during the First World War, before the legal decision about corpse roads to which I earlier referred, and the men were never identified. They were carried to St Oswald's Church at Lythe for burial where they now rest in peace - but even today, no-one knows who they are. The route over which their bodies were carried from the shore was said to have become a right of way. I gleaned this from local gossip but can find no record of its route in any of my books or files.
Some journeys along Corpse Ways were lengthy, so it was understandable that bearers would take rest and refreshment en route. Some did so on a long trek beside the Hambleton Hills, leaving the body by the roadside, but when they returned the body had vanished. It was never found - the site became known as Lost Corpse End.