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History and Folklore Podcast

Jan 27, 2022

Churchyard grims, stacked graves and Judgement Day. How did English graveyards changed in England between the medieval and Victorian eras?  



Twitter: @HistoryFolklore



There pass, with melancholy state,

By all the solemn heaps of fate,

And think, as softly-sad you tread

Above the venerable dead,

“Time was, like thee they life possessed,

And time shall be, that thou shalt rest.”

Hello, welcome to the History and Folklore podcast, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs shape people’s perceptions of nature. In this episode we will be looking at graveyards. As this is a huge topic, I will be focussing predominantly on Christian graveyards in England as that is what I have the most experience and knowledge on, and looking at their development, uses and folklore surrounding them.

Graveyards are interesting as hanges that have occurred in them over time often reflect a lot about the society that uses them including such wide ranging things as demographics, life expectancy, religious beliefs, attitudes to death, burial and remembrance, use of symbology, aesthetic design preferences and attitudes to the natural elements within the cemetery. The establishment of new graveyards can tell us about practical, political and religious considerations at the time regarding burial.

Many graveyards that currently exist in England date from the medieval period, and rural graveyards would often have been the first enclosed space to have existed within a parish. Some of these graveyards were established even earlier as burial grounds dating as far back as the Iron Age, and were later adopted and sanctified to be used for Christian burials.

A graveyard would usually be established in the grounds of the parish church, and would be consecrated before being used by the people in the parish. This sometimes caused issues for those living in distant, rural villages as the journey to the parish church could be long and dangerous. In these instances, the people living in these villages could apply to the parish church for their nearby chapel to be granted burial rights. However, as burial services provided a large income for the church or chapel at which the burial took place, these rights were hard won as the parish church would not want to lose the income from these burials. In the cases of burial grounds attached to hospitals often an agreement was made for the hospital to pay the parish church for every burial they conducted. However, disputes over burial rights were common, especially when a new monastery became established  in an area.

These religious institutions often wanted to be perceived to be the preferred place for burial, especially by the elite, as this would bring the monastery both prestige and continued wealth from the families of the interred, who would pay for services and prayers for the soul of their deceased relative. These families would then be more likely to choose the same monastery for future burials, as family tradition often dictated where a person chose to be buried. In some cases these disputes got pretty intense and example being in 1392 when the monks of Abingdon actually hijacked a funeral procession and disinterred 67 people from the parish's burial grounds with the aim of reburying them at the monastery.

Because of the loss of income and potential prestige, a compelling argument had to be put forward to justify the creation of a new graveyard and the giving away of burial rights. The most common reason given was that the journey was long and dangerous. In 1427 the people of Highweek complained of having to bury their dead at the parish church, despite being able to perform the burial rituals at their local chapel, meaning they had to undertake a long and dangerous journey for the sole purpose of burying the body.

However, complaints could also be financial. Two years later the parish of St Ives applied for burial rights as people had to put their occupations on hold for so long that they lost a substantial amount of revenue when taking part in funeral processions. On top of this, as so many people would leave their homes to  undertake the journey their deserted homes and belonging would be seen as easy prey for pirates, causing more financial hardship and distress. In some places funerals were even delayed as the local economy could not sustain lengthy absences caused by people attending funerals.

Whether a graveyard was being adapted from an existing burial ground or created from scratch, the land had to be sanctified before any Christian burials took place. In order to do this, the land would be cleared and a ceremony would be conducted by a bishop who would place a cross in each corner of the graveyard and another in the centre. Three lit candles would be placed in front of each cross and the bishop would walk around the churchyard, making sure to waft incense and sprinkle holy water at each cross.

If a mortal sin was committed within the bounds of a graveyard then it would need to be spiritually cleansed before it could be used for burials. This would usually include some form of public penance by the perpetrator, the payment of reconciliation fees and a ceremony conducted by an archbishop that involved blessing and sprinkling water at specific sites on the grave yard. Until these processes and ceremonies were completed then the graveyard could not be used for burials. This period of disuse could last for a significant amount of time, an example being the Minster Yard at Beverley in Yorkshire, which was considered polluted for two years between 1301 and 1303 following the murder of Peter of Cranswick. Unsurprisingly, being unable to bury people in the local churchyard had a significant impact on both the income of the church and the life of the community.

Interestingly another ceremony that seems very unchristian to modern eyes was often conducted by the parishioners once the graveyard was consecrated. This tradition stated that the first soul to be buried in the graveyard becomes the churchyard’s grim and must watch over and protect the inhabitants inside it. This would mean that the deceased soul was doomed to remain on earth, and would never have the opportunity to pass on to the afterlife. For this reason an animal, most commonly a dog, would be buried in a graveyard before any funerals had taken place. In other parts of England it was maintained that the last person to be buried in a graveyard must watch over and protect it until the next funeral occured, when the watch would be taken over by the more recently deceased. In these areas, if two burials were scheduled on the same day, it was known for the funeral parties to race and fight to get their loved one buried first to spare them the burden on acting as the graveyard’s protector.

A medieval graveyard would have looked very different to how it would today. Burials tended not to be marked with permanent memorials like they would in later periods, with people using temporary markers such as flowers, pieces of cloth and mounds of earth for recent graves. It was not until the eighteenth century that longer-lasting gravestones made of local stone and decorated with symbols of the deceased’s profession and personality started to become fashionable.

Partly due to this early the lack of permanent memorials, the graveyard was seen as a useful open space and was often used as a hub for the community where archery practice, markets, games, fairs and festivals would be held. The only permanent structure would be the wall, and often a stone preaching cross that would be used as the focal point for outdoor services such as palm sunday.

The way that graves were organised in burial sites also differed compared today.  Although there was nothing to mark the grave, people were generally buried with care, usually on the south side of the church, with their feet pointing towards the east and their heads pointing towards the west. The primary reason given for this in medieval texts was that the dead would be facing Christ on the Day of Judgement, as he would appear from the east, which was the region of goodness and light. However, this explanation was not given until after the ninth century, and is likely to be a later attempt to explain an older tradition.

There are instances of people not being buried according to this tradition. Often this appears to be due to a fear of the dead person rising from the grave, for example criminals and those who had died violent deaths. In St Andrews in York, the only body buried in the opposite direction had also been beheaded, a common deterrent against the wandering dead.

Other less sinister explanations coud be that the orientation of the body got confused before burial, an issue that would be more likely when simple coffins were in use or when burials were conducted hastily, such as during times of plague. A particularly strange example of an otherwise normal, and even high status, burial was of a priest who was buried with his head facing the wrong way. It has been suggested that the east to west orientation was chosen in this case so that the priest could face his congregation on Judgement Day.

As time went on, graveyards became more crowded, and with no markers to indicate where existing graves lay, bodies were often disturbed when new graves were dug. The most well known example of this is the famous scene in Hamlet, when Ophelia is being buried. In this scene Hamlet realises that the skull of his old friend, Yorick, has been dug up and, while he shows curiosity at the state of the skull and then sorrow at Yorick’s passing, he is not upset that Yorick’s grave has been desecrated as modern audiences might expect.

The lack of available burial space meant that graveyards soon became overcrowded and the dead were often moved, buried on top of each other and even removed completely to maximise space. It has been estimated that most graveyards contain around 10,000 burials, making the ground within the graveyard much higher compared to the ground outside the cemetery walls.

The point at which burials moved from carefully laid out rows laid shoulder to shoulder to a jumbled mess of layered bodies occurred at different times in different cemeteries. In some places this change occurred very early on, prior to the 1066 conquest. However, in others the change occurred much later, around the twelfth century, and it has been suggested that, as well as for practical reasons, this change in attitude may have been at least partially guided in the shift in belief from away from a Judgement Day where the dead would return in their physical bodies and towards purgatory, where the soul of the dead person would go almost immediately after death. The dead no longer needed their bodies in the afterlife, and so their physical remains could be treated with less care.

Despite the constant rearranging of burials to maximise space, the overcrowding soon became an issue and eventually reached emergency levels, especially in urban areas. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, London had only 218 acres of burial ground. This led to some of the graveyards of the oldest churches being densely packed. St Marylebones, for example, had more than 100,000 bodies buried into a cemetery that measured about an acre in size. When the poet William Blake died in 1827 he was buried in Bunhill Fields on top of three other bodies, and four more were later buried on top of him.

By the mid-nineteenth century graves became so shallow that scavenging animals could access the bodies, dragging the rotting corpses to the surface, a problem exacerbated by the fact that London lies on heavy clay soil that impedes decomposition, and causing the smell of decaying flesh to overwhelm the few visitors that might have ventured to visit a graveside.

This issue could also be true of newer burial grounds. Enon Chapel, near the Strand in London, was licenced for burials between 1823 and 1842, a period of just nineteen years. The vaults were turned into a cemetery and the chapel’s reverend charged a low fee of just fifteen shillings for burial, making it a popular choice for interment. It was reported that over nineteen years at least twenty bodies per week were placed in a space measuring just 18 metres by 12 metres and speculated both that quicklime was used to speed decay and that a sewer ran through the vaults, allowing the bodies to be washed away to the Thames. Even if these suppositions were true, the smell became so overwhelming that worshippers in the church above were known to regularly faint due to the fumes.

It was accounts of these types of events that led to the reform laid out in the burial act of 1852, which closed burial grounds within metropolitan Lonson and allowed the opening of large cemeteries in the countryside surrounding the city, with more available space and located on sandier, better draining soils. These graveyards were beautifully decorated, with ornate headstones and sculptures to commemorate the deceased. The fertile soil was planted with shrubs and trees and people would make trips on the recently built railways to go and enjoy the fresh country air, meet friends for walks and visits and visit the graves of the famous people buried there.

In this way, despite changing religious attitudes concerning the need for the body in the afterlife, different ways of commemorating the dead and practical considerations regarding their burial, graveyards went full circle from open, community spaces with ordered  burials in the early medieval period to crowded, often unsanitary spaces reserved primarily for the dead, and back again in the Victorian era to enjoyable community spaces were designed to be shared by both the living and the dead.

Thank you for listening to this episode of the History and Folklore podcast. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. Special thanks goes to my patreons Jeremiah, Jill, Cat, Ryan, Andrew, Morganu, Joseph, Becky, Eugenia, Robin, David, John, Ben and the Fairy Folk Podcast. Patrons help pay towards the cost of running the podcast and are hugely appreciated.

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