Churchyard Superstitions

by the Rev. Theodore Johnson

Among all classes of English people there are mixed feelings relating to our churchyards. They are either places of reverence on the one hand, or superstition on the other. The sacred plot surrounding the old Parish Church carries with it such a host of memories and associations, that to the learned and thoughtful it has always been God’s Acre, hallowed with a tender hush of silent contemplation of the many sad rifts and partings among us. We almost vie with each other in proclaiming that deep reverence for this one sacred spot, so dear to our family life, and affections, by those mementos of love which we raise over the resting-places of our lost ones gone before. This is strangely apparent in the stately monument, where the carver’s art declares the virtues of the dead, either by sculptured figure, or verse engraven, as well as in the ofttimes more pathetic, and perhaps more beautiful, tribute of the floral cross or wreath culled by loving hands, and borne in silence, by our poorer brethren, as [p 207] the only offering, or tribute, their slender means allows them to make. Be sure of this one fact, that our English Churchyards are better kept—more worthy of the name of God’s Acre than in the times past, for what is a more beautiful sight, than to see the kneeling children around the garden grave of a parent, or a child companion, adorning the little mound with flowers for the Eastertide festival. Here we have a living illustration of the truth of the concluding words of our Great Creed: “I look for the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to come.”

On the other hand, to the ignorant, and unlearned in these things, the Churchyard often becomes a place of dread, and it may be, some of the strange behaviour sometimes seen there arises from this inner feeling of awe, which in their ignorant superstition they are wont to carry off in the spirit of daring bravado.

From a close study of the subject, I am led to conclude that the common unchristian idea, that the churchyard is ‘haunted,’ whatever that may mean to a weak or ignorant person, has much to do with it. The evil report, once circulated, will be handed on to generations yet [p 208] unborn, until the simple origin, which at first might have been easily explained, becomes clouded in mystery as time goes on, and the deep rooted feeling of horror spreads around us, until even the more strong-minded among us, feel at times, somewhat doubtful as to whether there may not be some truth where the popular testimony is so strong.

In country districts, more than in towns, superstition is rife with regard to our Churchyards. The variety and form of this superstition is well nigh ‘Legion,’ and though many of my readers may enjoy an Ingoldsby experience when read in a well-lighted room, surrounded by smiling companions, few of them, after such an experience would care to pay a visit alone to some neighbouring churchyard, renowned for its tale of ghostly appearances. This will, I think enable me to show that by far the larger number of churchyard superstitions are purely chimerous fancies of the brain, and do not owe their origin, or existence, to any other source, be that source a wilful fraud, or imposition, designed to produce fear, or merely the imaginative delusion of some overstrained, or weak brain, which called first it into existence.

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Yet there are prevalent ideas or notions, about the churchyard and its sleepers, as deep-rooted as any wild superstition, and perhaps as difficult to solve, or to trace to any rational source. I would here mention one of the most strange, and probably one of the most prejudiced notions to be met with relating to burial in the churchyard. I refer to the East Anglian prejudice of being buried on the north side of the church. That this prejudice is a strong one, among the country people in certain parts of England, is proved by the scarcity of graves, nay, in many instances the total absence of graves, on the north side of our churches.

Some seventeen years ago, shortly after taking charge of a parish in Norfolk, I was called upon to select a suitable spot for the burial of a poor man, who had been killed by an accident. After several places had been suggested by me to the sexton, who claimed for them either a family right, or some similar objection; I noticed for the first time, that there were no graves upon the north side of the church, and I, in my innocence, suggested that there would be plenty of space there; whereupon my companion’s face at once assumed the most serious expression, and I [p 210] immediately saw that fear had taken hold of his mind, as he answered with a somewhat shaky voice, “No, Sir! No, that cannot be!” My curiosity was immediately aroused, and I sought for an explanation, which I found not from my good and loyal friend, who would not trust himself to answer further than “No, Sir! No, that cannot be!” The sexton’s manner puzzled me greatly, for the man was an upright, straightforward, open-hearted, servant of the Church—but I at once saw that it would be fruitless to push the matter further with him, so after marking out a suitable resting place for the poor unfortunate man, who not being a parishoner of long standing, had no family burial place awaiting him, I made my way home to think over the whole occurrence.

The cause for non-burial on the north side of the Church was indeed a mystery, yet that my parishoners had some valid reason for not being laid to rest there, was apparent; so I set about the task of unravelling the superstition, if so it may be called.

My library shelves seemed to be the most natural place of research, but here after consultation with several volumes of Archæology, Ecclesiology, [p 211] and Folk Lore, I could find nothing bearing upon the subject, beyond that in certain instances relating to Churchyard Parishes on the sea-coast, the north side by reason of its exposure to wind and storm, and being the sunless quarter of the burying ground, was less used than other parts; but here the reason given was in consideration of the living mourners at the time of the interment, and not the body sleeping in its last resting place of earth.

After some considerable correspondence with friends likely to be interested in such a matter, I was rewarded with information that, in some instances, the northern portion of the churchyard was left unconsecrated, and only thus occasionally used for the burial of suicides, vagrants, highwaymen (after the four cross road graves had been discontinued), or for nondescripts and unbaptised persons, for whom no religious service was considered necessary. Even this I did not accept as a solution of my problem. That there was something more than local feeling underlying this superstition, I was certain, but how to get to the root of the subject perplexed me.

The Editor of “Notes and Queries” could not satisfy me. His general suggestions and [p 212] kind desire to aid me were well-nigh fruitless, so that there remained for me the course of watching and waiting, as none of my neighbours could, or would, go beyond the conclusive statement of the sexton, “It must not be!” or what was even more indefinite, “I have never heard of such a thing.”

The subject was a fruitful source of thought for some months, and in vain I tried to connect some religious custom of other days, or to find some Text of Scripture, which might have given rise to the idea, if mistranslated, or twisted by human ingenuity, to serve such a purpose, but none occurred to me that in the least would bear of such a contortion.

In my intercourse with my older parishoners I sought in vain to test the unbaptized or suicidal burying place theory as suggested above, but this was entirely foreign to them. At length, the truth of the old saying, “All things come to those who wait” brought its due reward. I was called in to visit an aged parishoner, who was nearing the end of life’s journey, and among other subjects naturally came the thoughts, and wishes, of this old saintly man’s last hours on earth. He had been a shepherd for well nigh sixty [p 213] years, and a widower for the past fifteen years, and in consequence he had lived and worked much alone. This had produced a thoughtful spirit, and a certain slowness of speech, so that he was quite the last man I should have consulted for a solution of my mystery. Yet, here the secret was unfolded, or to my mind more satisfactorily explained, than by any previous consultation with either men or books. The grand old labourer, or faithful shepherd, as he was laid helpless on his bed, with his life work symbol—the shepherd’s crook, standing idle in the corner, and his trusty dog, restless and perplexed, roaming from room to room, was a wonderful picture of a Christian death-bed.

There I learned many a solemn life-lesson never to be forgotten. The calm voice, the monosyllabic answers given in response to my questions are still fresh to me; and there I learned the source of my Churchyard Superstition in the following manner:—

With a strange, weird, unnatural light in the aged man’s eyes, which portrayed much anxiety of mind, he spoke about his burial-place, and particularly emphasising the words “On the south side, sir, near by the wife.” When I ventured to [p 214] inquire if he knew why such a strong objection was held to burial on the north side of the church. He started suddenly, and I shall never forget his reproachful, sad look as he more readily than usual gave the answer:—“The left side of Christ, sir: we don’t like to be counted among the goats.”

As a flash of lightning illuminates the whole darkness of the country side, and reveals for the moment every object in clear outline, so this quaint saying of my dying friend dispelled in a moment the mists of the past which clouded the truth of my strange superstition.

Here was the best answer to the mystery, pointing with no uncertain words to the glorious Resurrection Day, this aged, earthly shepherd at the end of his years of toil recognised his Great Master, Jesus, as the True Shepherd of mankind, meeting His flock as they arose from their long sleep of death, with their faces turned eastward, awaiting His appearing.

Then when all had been called and recognised He turned to lead them onward, still their True Shepherd and Guide, with the sheep on His right hand, and the goats on His left hand, so wonderfully foretold in the Gospel story: [p 215] “When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory; And before Him shall be gathered all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.”—S. Matt, xxv., 31, 32, 33.

Surely, the above simple illustration explains much that is difficult and mysterious to us in the way of religious superstition. Undoubtedly, we have here a good example of how superstitions have arisen, probably from a good source, it may be the words of some teacher long since passed away. The circumstance has long been forgotten, yet the lesson remains, and being handed down by oral tradition only, every vestige of its religious nature disappears and but the feeling remains, which, in the minds of the ignorant populace, increases in mystery and enfolds itself in superstitious awe, without any desire from them to discover the origin, or source, of such a strange custom, or event.