Corpse Roads

The landscape of Britain is still marked by medieval burial rites, particularly in the form of corpse roads, aka lych ways and coffin roads. I’ve been researching them for Wild Magic (the sequel to Cruel Magic in the Iron & Thorns series). Besides having a cool-creepy name, they’re an interesting reminder of the past.

Medieval people wanted their family and friends to be buried in the holy ground found in churchyards, but some villages were far from the nearest church. People were also superstitious about letting a corpse (and its associated ghost) pass over their fields. They were afraid it would make the ground barren. So, these small and distant communities developed corpse roads for mourners to carry their loved ones to the churches. The roads were often many miles and wound through uninhabited lands, often over rough ground. Because of the weight of the coffin and corpse, coffin stones with crosses waited along the route so the mourners could put down their burden and rest.

Because corpse roads cross marginal land and were marked by superstition and tradition, many survive today. They wend their way through the British countryside along the same route taken by hundreds of medieval villagers over the centuries, ending at the lych gate of medieval churches, where the mourners would wait with the coffin for the priest to come. Some of these ways still have their coffin stones. And, of course, many of them have their local ghosts – wailing ladies, headless corpses, and black dogs are supposed to be common companions when walking the corpse roads.

Parish church in Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds with a path ending at its lynch gate.
Parish church in Lower Slaughter in the Cotswolds with a path ending at its lynch gate. Image copyright stevehead via Depositphotos.

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