Corpse roads provided a practical means of allowing the transport of corpses to cemeteries that had burial rights. In Britain, such routes are have been given similar names such as: bier road, burial road, coffin road, coffin line, lyke or lych way, funeral road, procession way, etc. These "church-ways" have developed a great deal of associated folklore regarding wraiths, spirits, ghosts, and such-like.
In late medieval times a population increase and a concomitant expansion of church building took place in Great Britain inevitably encroaching on the territories of existing churches or minsters. Demands for autonomy from outlying settlements made minster officials feel that their authority was waning, as were their revenues, so they instituted corpse roads connecting outlying locations and their mother churches (at the heart of parishes) that alone held burial rights. For some parishioners, this decision meant that corpses had to be transported long distances, sometimes through difficult terrain. These were usually carried, unless the departed was a wealthy individual. The Corpse roads or ways were left unploughed and it was considered very bad luck if for any reason a different route had to be taken. Many of the 'new' churches were eventually granted burial rights and corpse roads ceased to be used as such.
Some of these footpaths still survive today, such as the funeral way that runs from Rydal to Ambleside in the Lake District where a coffin stone, on which the coffin was placed while the parishioners rested, still exists. However many corpse roads have long disappeared, as knowledge of their original purposes have been largely forgotten, especially if features such as coffin stones or crosses no longer exist. Fields crossed by church-way paths often had names like “Church-way” or “Kirk-way Field”, and today it is sometimes possible to plot the course of some lost church-ways by the sequence of old field names, local knowledge of churches, local legends and lost features of the landscape marked on old maps, etc. One of the oldest superstitions is that any land over which a corpse is carried becomes a public right of way.
An example of a corpse road or way is that of the church of St Peter and Paul at Blockley, in Gloucestershire, which held the burial right to the inhabitants of the hamlets Stretton-on-Fosse in Warwickshire, where there was a chapel which became a rectory in the 12th century, and Aston Magna, where there was a chapel which was merely a chantry. All 'tithes' and 'mortuaries', however, came to the parish church of Blockley, to which church the people of Stretton and Aston were committed to carry their deceased for burial. The corpse road from Aston to Blockley churchyard is over two miles (3 km) long and crosses three small streams en route. The corpse road from Stretton to Blockley runs for some four miles (6 km) and crosses two streams.
The spirits of the dead
The essence of deep-rooted spirit lore is that supposed spirits of one kind or another – spirits of the dead, phantasms of the living, wraiths, or nature entities like fairies move through the physical landscape along special routes. In their ideal, pristine form, at least, such routes are conceived of as being straight, having something in common with ley lines. By the same token, convoluted or non-linear features hinder spirit movement i.e labyrinths and mazes.
Spirits could not cross running water as such spirit roads, such as the church-ways, were always conceived of as being straight, but the physical corpse roads of the United Kingdom vary as much as any other path. Corpses were conveyed along defined corpse roads to avoid their spirits returning to haunt the living. It was a widespread custom, for example, that the feet of the corpse be kept pointing away from the family home on its journey to the cemetery.
Other minor ritualistic means of preventing the return of the dead person included ensuring that the route the corpse took to burial would take it over bridges or stepping stones across running water which spirits could not cross, stiles, and various other 'liminal' (“betwixt and between”) locations, all of which had reputations for preventing or hindering the free passage of spirits. The living took pains to prevent the dead from wandering the land as lost souls or animated corpses, for the belief in revenants (ghosts) was widespread in mediæval Europe.
People using the corpse roads assumed that they could be passages for ghosts. The ancient spirit folklore that attached itself to the medieval and later corpse roads also may have informed certain prehistoric features. In Britain, for instance, Neolithic earthen avenues called cursuses link burial mounds: these features can run for considerable distances, even miles, and are largely straight, or straight in segments, connecting funerary sites. The purpose of these avenues is imperfectly understood, but some kind of spirit-way function may be one reasonable explanation. Similarly, some Neolithic and Bronze Age graves, especially in France and Britain, are associated with stone rows, like those at Merrivale on Dartmoor, with intriguing blocking stones at their ends.
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Now it is that time of night,
That the graves all gaping wide,
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide.
Puck suggests a secret history of these routes, for unsurprisingly they attracted long extant folk lore, running not only through the physical countryside but also through the invisible geography, the 'mental terrain', of pre-industrial country-folk. Shakespeare's prose leaves little doubt that the physical corpse roads came to be perceived as being spirit routes, taking on qualities which lingered in the folklore of his age and which he incorporated into his play knowing that it would be a familiar concept.