burial, irregular


burial, irregular
   Traditionally, outcasts in life were outcasts in death. In early modern England, 'The infliction of damage upon the corpses of executed criminals - the quartering of traitors, and the use of dissection upon murderers - historically constituted a deliberate judicial breach of society-wide norms and values . . . the deliberate mutilation or destruction of identity, perhaps for eternity' (Richardson, 1987: 28-9). The same could be said of gibbeting, and of the *skins of sacrili-gious robbers nailed to church doors, like vermin to barn doors.
   Religious burial was also refused to *suicides and the excommunicate, symbolizing their damnation, and to *unbaptized babies, whose status was ambiguous. Jews, Nonconformists, and Roman Catholics were not admitted to Anglican churchyards, and used private burial grounds until public cemeteries were established. Another solution was to bury the rejected person on his own land; the Hereford Journal of 19 June 1783 reported the discovery of a skeleton in a paddock near Grantham, under a stone inscribed: 'Here lies the body of Zacharias Laxton, deceased the 27th of August, 1667, being for his excommunication denied the usual place of burial.'
   Many Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon corpses have been discovered decapitated (the head often between the feet), laid face down, crushed under large boulders, bound, or dismembered; some are in normal cemeteries, others in boundary earthworks. The latter may have been criminals, buried at execution sites; their remoteness 'probably reflects the desire to banish social outcasts to the geographical limits of local territories' (Reynolds, 1998). At Sutton Hoo (Suffolk), the practice continued into the 10th or 11th centuries at the site of a gallows (Carver, 1998: 137-44). Such treatments could also be rituals to stop them returning as *undead; indeed, both intentions may be present, since executed criminals, having died by violence, would be thought likely to 'walk'.
   Belief in the effectiveness of prone burial persisted remarkably long. On 29 July 1915 a letter to The Times describes how British soldiers were impressed by the evil expression on a dead German's face: 'Later, I found our men burying him most carefully - face downwards. You know why. If he began digging his way out he would only go deeper' (reprinted in Folk-Lore 27 (1916), 224-5). On 30 July 1915, the Daily Chronicle reported what must surely be the same incident, with the soldier's explanation: 'If the beggar begins to scratch, he will scratch his way to the devil. It's an old belief in our district, and it took our fancy' (quoted in N&Q 11s:12 (1915), 118).
   Suicides also received dishonorable burial. From medieval to modern times, English law distinguished between those guilty of 'self-murder' and those 'of unsound mind'. By Church law, the former could not be laid in consecrated ground, nor could the burial service be read over them; the latter were allowed these rites, but were often placed on the *north side of the churchyard. Until 1823, 'self-murderers' were buried in a roadway (not necessarily at a *crossroads), to be trampled underfoot. A stake was often driven through the body to pin it in its grave; its top was sometimes left visible, as a deterrent (MacDonald and Murphy, 1990: 44-9, 137-9). Broken pottery, flints, and stones might be thrown in (Shakespeare, Hamlet, v. i) as a further mark of disgrace, or perhaps a precaution against ghosts.
   Roadside and crossroads burials are a fairly common topic for local legend, as is the idea that a particular tree grew from a stake driven through a corpse, or from a seed laid in its mouth - e.g. Dab's Elm near Winchcombe and Maud's Elm in Swindon (both Gloucestershire), grown from the stakes of suicides.
   Some unconventional burials were freely chosen; William Chambers's Book of Days (1864) lists several examples from the late 18th century of men buried on hilltops, in woodland, or in fields (i. 804-5, ii. 627-8). In 1800, the coffin of a notorious eccentric, Major Peter Labelliere, was lowered head first into a deep grave like a well, on Box Hill in Surrey (The Gentleman's Magazine 70: 2 (1800), p. 693); it was said he expected the world to turn topsy-turvey on *Doomsday, so he would then be the right way up. Such graves become a topic for storytelling; run round them seven times, it is often said, and the ghost will jump out. Isolated towers, obelisks, and follies are sometimes alleged to cover odd burials, e.g. of a man on horseback, or holding a bottle of wine; the macabre here blends with humour.
   It is said of various legendary *wizards and local heroes that they cheated the Devil by promising he could have their souls whether they were buried inside or outside the church, and then getting themselves buried in the thickness of its wall, i.e. 'neither in nor out'.
   ■ Merrifield, 1987: 71-6; David Wilson, Anglo-Saxon Paganism (1992), 77-86; Andrew Reynolds, British Archaeology 31 (Feb. 1998), 8-9; Martin Carver, Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? (1998); MacDonald and Murphy, 1990.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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