Burial Customs to prevent the dead from rising to haunt the living!
In 2004, two extraordinary skeletons were discovered in a ditch on the perimeter of an ancient cemetery on the west coast of Ireland. Both skeletons had large stones wedged into their open jaw and had large stone slabs placed over their grave; their limbs were broken and bound. These skeletons were carbon dated to the seventh century when Ireland was becoming Christianised and new stories were told to the pagan people about what would happen in the Afterlife. Traditionally, Christian corpses were buried facing the eastern horizon, so that when the sun rose on the last day, all would stand and immediately see Jesus rising in glory with the dawning of a new day in Heaven. These two bodies, with their head in a ditch, would not greet their saviour along with all others in the cemetery, as they were buried to lie in a NW-SE direction.
It is likely that these two corpses were treated in this extraordinary manner because of the fear of ‘the revenant’, a word used to describe a dead person who rises from the grave to haunt the living; a major theme of the dark ages.
In 1085, two villagers from Stapenhill in the North of England, set out to a nearby village where they both died and were buried in the cemetery. Soon, they were seen walking in the cemetery with their coffins on their backs. Villagers said they were woken from their sleep by the calling their names by these two strangers. People were terrified. The corpses were dug up and beheaded, then their corpses cut open and their hearts were removed and taken to a hill where they were placed on a funeral pyre. Two black crows were seen flying out of the dying embers.
In the UK, the twelfth century chronicler, William of Malmesbury documented a witch who lived in a convent. Upon death, she was sewn into a stag’s skin and locks and chains were placed around her coffin. Incantations were recited for three days. Still she was dug up by the devil, so the story goes, to haunt the land forever.
In 1732 in Serbia, military surgeons were asked to investigate seventeen people who had all died within three months of each other. The battle hardened doctors were shocked by their discoveries. The corpses of the dead men had not decayed as would be expected. Each coffin revealed, within the white winding sheet, blood around the mouth of a plump and healthy looking body. Belgrade newspapers reported their findings and soon Europe was in the grip of a vampire scare.
‘Revenants’, the walking dead, have always been feared by the living.
In the days of ancient Greece, crossroads were dedicated to Hecate, Goddess of the Underworld, who was said to have three faces, each to observe the three directions of the forked rossroads. Representations of her as a pole with three masks were placed where three roads met. Cakes with candles were left at these sites so the ghosts that followed Her would be fed and not haunt the living. Diana, Roman Goddess of the Witches, was also Goddess of the Crossroads and a small altar was placed there for the protection of travellers who left gifts in return for good luck. In India, Rudra, the God of the Crossroads, also ruled ghosts and evil powers. In Africa, Elegua opened and closed all paths and carried a forked stick cut from the guava tree. In Russia, vampires were said to lurk at crossroads: in Sweden witches were reported to dance at the crossroads in order to summon the devil.
Crossroads throughout the world are considered places of confusion as they present choices and hence a matter of chance and unknown possibilities for the traveller. The fork where three or more roads meet is considered an entrance to the Otherworld and hence a place of feared sightings of apparitions, ghostly manifestations and visitations from beyond the grave. The last burial at a crossroads was outside Lords Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood in 1823.
Parish boundary lines were frequently positioned at crossroads. Those who had committed acts of criminality (such as thieves and highwaymen) and witches (who were said to have the power to adversely affect people and animals) were not entitled to be buried in consecrated ground in the parish. They were buried at crossroads in order to confuse the soul so it would never find its way to heaven. Suicides, often considered restless and vengeful after death, were also not entitled to a burial in consecrated ground. Such atypical burials are termed ‘deviant’ and some were buried upside down to confuse their sense of direction. To prevent the dead from rising and haunting the living, a stake was often driven through the heart or navel to pin the unfortunate into the ground. The practice of driving stakes through the bodies of those who had committed suicide was outlawed in England.
Scaffolds were erected at crossroads such as Tyburn in London where two Roman roads meet (Edgware Road and Bayswater Road). Gibbets and gallows were also erected on high places to provide an elevation for the spectacle, such as Gallows Hill, now known as Galley Hill in Luton. A noose was placed around the neck of the accused. They ascended a ladder or horse drawn cart which would then be removed from under them. Hanged criminals did not die quickly and their relatives frequently tried to hasten their end by tugging at their thrashing legs so they noose would tighten and quickly cause strangulation.
Those found guilty of crimes, such as murder or sheep-stealing were placed in a cage and displayed upon the gibbet to starve to death, a process known as ‘gibbeting’ or ‘hanging in chains’. The dead were left to rot on the rope on which they were hanged and often their body was dipped in tar to prevent the birds from consuming it so it remained as an example to others. The body would eventually be unceremoniously buried under the gibbet, often to be dug up by hungry dogs or by witches who thought the fingers of the dead possessed special powers.
It was possible for witches to make contact with the dead at the crossroads sites and witches were said to gather at sabbats around the scaffold, the place where their accomplices were tortured and hanged. In the Isle of Man there was a traditional method of removing spectral hauntings by going to the crossroads and sweeping the intersection clear of fallen leaves and other debris. This sweeping should be conducted at midnight when the moon was full with a besom switch broom of birch twigs. ‘Sweeping’ occurred throughout Britain as a means of banishing spirits of disorder and to restore calm. When I was visiting Maxine Sanders, a well-known witch, after the death of her ex-partner, Alexander Sanders, she was sweeping her flat from the inner-most sanctum to the front door to remove his spirit from her home in case it was restless.
The Church – and society - has rethought its attitude to suicide and considers it a difficult and painful decision, taken whilst in distress. It has reconsidered also its judgement on murderers, all are granted burial in consecrated ground if the family of the deceased should request it. Society now no longer experiences enjoyment at watching the sensationalised suffering of others, no matter what crime has been committed. In the New Age, the dead rarely haunt the living. However, in Southern Romania it is very common for peasants to believe that the dead (known as the moroi’) haunt the living and take their strength. In 2004, five men dug up a corpse of a villager because his niece had seen his shadow in the night. Once again, blood was seen around the mouth and when the men cut into the corpse to remove his heart, the body groaned and growled. They removed his heart and made a fire of straw and corn husks and placed the heart on the fire where it crackled in the flames.
So what causes blood to be seen around the mouth of a corpse, how does it resist decay and why do dead bodies groan when moved? In certain climatic or soil conditions, when a body is buried, it does not decay quickly and can appear to be plump and fresh. Decomposition gasses within the body discharge, so that the body emits noises and, over time, some blood leaking into the mouth is common. However, when you next pass a crossroads - do as they did long ago - be sure to make the sign of the cross in case the un-dead latch onto you! By Wendy Stokes www.wendystokes.co.uk