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Death, Burial and Belief in Derbyshire: Victorian Folklore, Superstition, and Ritual

For All Soul’s Day – a time when traditionally the bereaved think of their deceased loved ones – the following are more extracts from Sidney Odhall Addy’s late 19th century collection of supernatural folk tales, superstitions, and rituals, relating to Derbyshire – this time regarding to death and burial. Before presenting extracts from his Household Tales and Remains, some background information on death and burial in the past may be useful. (Also see the Halloween post ‘Derbyshire Folklore: Ghosts, Witchcraft, and Halloween Traditions’ for further extracts.)

Alll Saint's Churchyard, Sudbury, Derbyshire

All Saint’s Churchyard, Sudbury, Derbyshire

Death and burial in the 19th century

Few people could afford hospital care before the establishment of the NHS in the post-war period; most people therefore died in their own bed at home, where the corpse would remain for several days (sometimes longer if finding the money for a funeral was difficult) before burial. The folk tales and folklore below reflect this practice.

There were several reasons for this before the common use of funeral parlours, one being inadequate mortuary provision and ‘chapels of rest’ in many areas. In addition, even where mortuaries were available, many people were reluctant to consign the bodies of their loved ones to ‘the government’ or hospitals, due to the fear that the remains would be dissected.[i] This fear derived from an Act of 1832, which had specified that ‘anatomists’ could use the ‘unclaimed’ bodies of those who died in workhouses (the only medical care available for many people).[ii] This fear continued into the 20th century, with many hospitals housed in the buildings of workhouses (a factor that also put off many people from going into hospital for treatment that might have prevented death). The intention of the Act was (at least ostensibly) that if no one ‘claimed’ a body, the practice would not distress surviving relatives (the Act ignored the prospect of grieving friends). However, by claiming a body, the family took on the responsibility of the funeral (and its often hefty costs), which many could not afford.[iii]

Fear of dissection was not entirely a product of the Act, before which bodies buried soon after death might be stolen by ‘resurrectionists’ (body snatchers) and sold to medical schools; bodies were therefore sometimes kept until so putrefied, that they would be of no use to anatomists. Those with strong religious beliefs especially feared dissection, believing that only a complete body could rise to heaven; dissection was also considered disrespectful, particularly that women would be on view naked to medical students.[iv] There was a further realisation that anatomy schools and hospitals might not bury dissected remains with respect – or in some cases, might not provide a funeral service or ‘decent’ burial at all, consigning remains to the rubbish, or burying the partial remains of several together within a single grave deposit.[v]

Another reason that the body remained at home was in case it revived (i.e. the proclamation of death had been inaccurate: bearing in mind the limited medical care and knowledge available to most households, this was not uncommon); the folk tale A Dream of Heaven, below, incorporates such a case). This was one stimulus for a watch over the corpse by family or friends (a practice variously known as ‘watching’, ‘lyke-waking’, or ‘lich-waking’: see below), which some also saw as providing comfort for the dead.[vi] The superstitious would also see this as a particularly dangerous time for the soul of the deceased, which if not accompanied, evil spirits (or the devil) might take.This period would also provide more time for the family to obtain funds and mourning clothes for the funeral.[vii]

A common and widespread practice was for members of the family and local community (including children) to ‘view’ the corpse before the funeral, to pay their ‘last respects’. Oral histories indicate that this tradition continued well into the 20th century.[viii]

Superstitious beliefs and ritual practices relating to death and burial in Derbyshire


It was believed that the image of a man dying far away would appear to his relatives at the moment of his death.

At Eyam, it was considered unlucky to lay a man in the earth without tears having been shed over him; rain at a funeral was believed to be good luck, as it means that the at least the heavens weep, should the dead man’s friends not mourn for him.

A feather bed was not conducive to an easy death.

It was thought that a man cannot die without divulging what he has on his mind.

The first person to meet a funeral was believed would die first. Addy records that a Dronfield woman would follow funerals to see who this person was.

When seeing a corpse, it should be touched, to avoid bad dreams [see Death and burial in the 19th century, above].

It was said at Eyam that there would soon be another death in the village if the passing-bell sounded very clearly.

If invited to a funeral, it was considered unlucky not to go.

Another death in the family was supposed to soon follow shortly if the joints of a corpse are loose.

A death in the family would soon occur if dreaming of a death for three nights in succession.

If the neck of a child did not stiffen shortly after death, it was supposed that another death in the family will soon follow.

A widow’s bonnet should not be put on, or the wearer would become a widow.

Unless in mourning, black pins should not be purchased.

Carrying anything into a house on the shoulders, especially a spade, was to be avoided; otherwise the bearer might soon have to carry a coffin in afterwards.


Preparing for death

Addy notes that many in North Derbyshire made their own coffins.

People would ‘preserve their teeth in jars until their deaths, after which the teeth were put into their coffins and buried with them. Mothers would also preserve the teeth of their infant children and keep them in jars. It is said that when you go to heaven you will have to account for all the teeth that you have had upon earth. A man said that his grandmother used to call out at a funeral, “Have you got his teeth in the coffin?” or “Don’t bury him without his teeth.”

This was supposed by Addy to be related to the ‘old practice’ of burying the dead with their clothes, weapons, shoes, and even food, in their tombs a practice which arose from the well-known belief, current amongst uncivilised men, that the dead require the bodily equipments which they have had in life.

A house in which a corpse lies should not be locked up and left, and the doors and windows should be left open for the spirit to leave.

In laying out a corpse, food was placed upon a table within reach of the body at Eckington.

At Dore, a pewter plate containing a handful of salt was laid upon the breast of a corpse when laying out, to keep away witches.

A candle should be kept burning all night in the room where the person died, to prevent the spirit from haunting the room.

The corpse was watched all night at Eyam, with a candle burning at each end of the coffin – a practice known as “lich-waking”.

At Dronfield funerals in the coffin is laid on a table outside the house, which was covered with a white cloth, and upon which neighbours lay flowers (such as ‘bachelors ‘buttons’ and bergamot), and sing a hymn.

To the church

Mourners at Eyam funerals received spiced ale, known as “burnt drink” at the house door before the funeral procession left for church. This ‘dark-looking liquid, with a strongly aromatic smell…spiced with cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and mace’ was handed round in a large tankard, along with triangular currant cakes, handed round in a large round willow basket. They carried the cake wrapped in a handkerchief when walking before the corpse to church (singing all the way). The same vessels were used at all village funerals.

Cake and burnt drinks was offered to the bees of the deceased. “When a bee-master dies tins containing funeral biscuits soaked in wine are put in front of the hives, so that the bees may partake of their master’s funeral feast. Two kinds of funeral cakes are used, namely, biscuits and “burying cakes,” the latter only being given to the poor. The bees always have the biscuits, and not the “burying cakes.”

On the way to church at an Eyam funeral, four girls dressed in white carried before the corpse of an unmarried girl a white satin ribbon garland, laid on two crossed sticks of green willow.

At the burial of a young unmarried woman in the north of Derbyshire, eight girls who have been her friends would, dressed in white, carry the body to church, always going by the main road, and stopping to sing a hymn if passing a chapel or other “place of worship” that she attended.

The ‘passing-bell’ was tolled at noon on the day before the funeral of a corpse from another parish to be buried in the church or churchyard at Eyam.


Still-born children must be buried before sunrise or at night, for them to go to heaven. Addy notes that the burial of still-born children at night, with no funeral service, is very common in Derbyshire.

The wake

Wine should first be offered to the coffin bearers at a funeral, and the guests only receive wine when the funeral party had returned from church.


Flowers were strewn on the graves of relatives and friends on All Saints’ Day – a time that should be devoted ‘entirely to thinking of the departed’, perhaps to encourage the ‘saints who have gone before’ and to whom this day is ‘especially sacred’ to intercede on their behalf.

Folk Tales[xi]

It is said that at an ancient chapel at Hayfield, in Glossop parish, the dead in the cemetery surrounding the chapel, ‘clothed in golden raimen’, rose from their graves in the sixteenth century.

It is said that two sisters who loved the same man once lived in an old farmhouse in the Peak Forest. One murdered the other; the dying sister porclaimed that her bones would not rest in any grave. If her bones are removed from their resting place – a cheese vat in the staircase window of a farmhouse – ‘trouble comes upon the house’, such as strange noises at night, or the death or illness of cattle die.


The Bag of Nuts[xiii]

It happened once that two young men met in a churchyard, about eight o’ clock in the evening. One of them said to the other, “Where are you going?”

The other answered, “I’m going to get a bag of nuts that lies underneath my mother’s head in this churchyard. But tell me, where are you going?”

He said, “I’m going to steal a fat sheep out of this field. Wait here till I come back.”

Then the other man got the nuts that were under his dead mother’s head, and stood in the church porch cracking them.

In those days it was the custom to ring a bell at a certain time in the evening, and just as the man was cracking the nuts the sexton came into the churchyard to ring it. But when he heard the cracking of the nuts in the porch he was afraid, and ran to tell the parson, who only laughed at him, and said, “Go and ring, fool.” However, the sexton was so afraid, that he said he would not go back unless the parson would go with him.

After much persuasion the parson agreed to go, but he had the gout very badly, and the sexton had to carry him on his back. When the man in the porch who was cracking the nuts saw the sexton coming into the churchyard with the parson on his back he thought it was the man who had just gone out to steal the sheep, and had returned with a sheep on his back. So he bawled out, “Is it a fat one?”

When the sexton heard this he was so frightened that he threw the parson down and said, “Aye, and thou canst take it if thou lik’st.” So the sexton ran away as fast as he could, and left the parson to shift for himself. But the parson ran home as fast as the sexton.

The Boy Who Feared Nothing[xiv]

Once a father made a bet with his son that he dare not go into the bone-house in their village churchyard at midnight and fetch a skull out without taking a light with him.

The son accepted the wager, and on the following night went down into the bone-house.

In the meantime the father had told a man to hide himself in the bone-house, and watch the boy.

When the boy got down amongst the bones, he picked up a skull. Then the man who had hidden himself said, “Don’t take that, for that’s my mother’s skull.” So the boy threw it down, and picked up another skull, when the man said, “Don’t take that, for that’s my grandmother’s.” So the boy threw that down, and picked another up, but the man said, “And that’s my grandfather’s.” Then the boy shouted, “Why, they’re all thy mother’s, or thy grandmother’s; but I’ve come for a skull, and I’ll have one.” So the boy picked one up and ran home to his father, and won the wager.

A Dream of Heaven[xv]

A girl called Ann Brown who had been very ill fell into a trance, and it was believed that she was dead. When her body had been laid out for ten hours her mother went into the room where she lay to kiss her, and thought that she felt her daughter’s breath warm upon her cheek. Then she fetched the clergyman, and he took a small piece of looking glass and held it over her mouth to see whether it was steamed by her breath. In this way he found that the girl lived. So he called all the family into the room and told them to stand round the bed. He sat at the head of the bed and took one of the girl’s hands into his own, and after a while she opened her eyes, and gave three groans.

Then the clergyman said to her, “Now tell us where you have been?” So after a while the girl opened her eyes and said, “I have been all the way to heaven, and the first to meet me was the Devil, who held in his hand a black book, and the letters in it were written in crimson. The Devil asked me to write my name in the book, and follow him. But I said Get thee hence, Satan/ and went further on my way.

Next I saw an angel dressed in pure white, who took my hand, and led me on a path as soft as down and as white as snow, until we came to the gate of heaven. And over the gate was written ‘ Behold the Lamb.’ As we came near to the gate it flew open, and the Lord came out and took me in. Then the Lord led me to a place which was full of girls like myself, and after that he took me into another place which was full of soldiers that had spears and bayonets, and the bayonets had seals on them. After this another angel came and took me away from the Lord and led me into another place, which was full of infants singing. I saw the throne of God, which was all bright and shining, but they would not let me see God himself. After I had seen the throne the Lord came to me again, and took my hand and said, ‘It is God’s wish that you go back to the earth for a little while longer’ Then I said to the Lord, ‘Let me stay here. But the Lord answered, ‘You have served me faithfully from a child, and it is my desire that you go back to the world”

The Sons Who Salted Their Father’s Corpse[xvi]

A farmer who had two sons died in harvest time. And because the weather was fine the sons were very busy with their harvesting, and could not spare time to bury him.

So one of the sons said to the other, “I’ll tell thee what we’ll do; we’ll take him down into the cellar, and lay him on the milk bench, and salt him.” The other son agreed; so they look their father’s body into the cellar and salted him, stopping up his ear-holes and nostrils to keep the flies out.

About three weeks afterwards it began to rain, and the sons thought they could spare time to bury him. So they went to the parson and told him that their father was dead. The parson was astonished to hear the news, and asked how long he had been dead.

“Three weeks,” said the sons.”

“Why, he’ll stink,” said the parson.

“Nay,” said the brothers, “he’s as sweet as a pea, for we’ve salted him.”

The parson was so taken aback at these words that he could not speak, and walked away.



[i] Ruth Richardson (1988) Death, Dissection and the Destitute

[ii] Julie-Marie Strange (2005) Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1870-1914

[iii] Strange, op cit..

[iv] Richardson, op cit..

[v]  Ibid; see also Louise Fowler and Natasha Powers (eds.) Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men

[vi] Richardson, op cit.; Bertram S. Puckle (1926) Funeral Customs; Julian Litten (1991) The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral Since 1450.

[vii] Strange, op. cit..

[viii] For example, see Elsie Elizabeth Goodhead (1983) The West End Story; and Robert Roberts (1971) The Classic Slum.

[ix] Extracts paraphrased from the text

[x] Ditto.

[xi] Extracts copied from the text

[xii] Ditto.

[xiii] From Calver, Derbyshire. Addy notes that another version of the story is in A Hundred Mery Talys, 1526, reprinted 1866 by Oesterley.

[xiv]  From Calver, Derbyshire. Addy compares the tale with notes in Grimm, No. 4., in which Grimm records ‘a similar story from the neighbourhood of Paderhorn, in which a bone-house is mentioned’.

[xv] From Eckington, Derbyshire.

[xvi] From Calver, Derbyshire.