I am currently and apparently belatedly starting work on my MA dissertation which is concerned with Dartmoor’s Lych Way which at one time was a corpse road. During the research I somehow managed to get side-tracked down the route of corpse candles which I am sure will not suit an academic study. However, as some light relief there is nothing to say that the subject can’t be included on this website, after all it is a Dartmoor tradition.
For centuries there has been the believe that life is represented by light and fire and that the life-soul is a flame that lives inside ones body – hence the analogy, “light of my life“. When death occurs the soul leaves the body in the form of a flame and it was/is believed that this light or soul of the departed would return to serve as an omen of someone’s impending death. The Dartmoor tradition is that these flames or ‘Corpse Candles’ are blue in colour and vary in size. In theory there are three sizes of flame; a large one represents the impending death of a man, a medium sized flame the death of a woman and a small one the death of a child. By no means is this tradition exclusive to Dartmoor but it does appear in Devonshire that things are a little different as the Corpse Candle will only visit a dying person if they have relatives or children already buried in the churchyard.
When a person was near to death the Corpse Candle would appear at their house and then make its way to the churchyard by the same route that the coffin would follow once death had occurred. In rural and remote areas this route would more often or not be via the local church or corpse road and by this very fact is the reason that these ancient tracks are where they occur most often. This is because the local church path/corpse road was the route that linked the scattered farms and homesteads to the local church and by habit was the most commonly used.
“All under the stars, and beneath the green tree,
All over the sward, and along the cold lea,
A little blue flame a-fluttering came;
It came from the churchyard for you or for me.
I sit by the cradle, my baby’s asleep.
And rocking the cradle, I wonder and weep.
O little blue light in the dead of the night,
O prithee, O prithee, no nearer to creep.
Why follow the church-path, why steal you this way?
Why halt your journey, on threshold why stay?
With flicker and flare, why dance on the stair?
O I would! O I would! it were dawning of day.
All under the stars, and along the green lane,
Unslaked by the dew, and unquenched by the rain,
Of little flames blue to the churchyard steal two,
The soul of my baby! now from me has now flew”.
Sometimes the Corpse Candle would make strange detours that led across fields or woods, at times they would pause and hover over a certain spot but whatever it did or wherever it went the coffin would do or go in a similar manner. I have heard it said that if a Corpse Candle was seen to cross an arable or hay field then the following crop would be a disaster. One thing that was vital was never to impede a Corpse Candle or interfere with its progress in any shape or form because if that happened then the guilty party themselves would also end up buried in the churchyard.
Over the centuries it seems that the way a Corpse Candle was regarded has changed from one of acceptance to one of fear and it’s probable that this is due to the way dead was and is perceived. During Medieval times it was regarded vital to have a ‘good death’ which basically meant having the opportunity to prepare oneself both spiritually and practically before dying. This meant having an opportunity to bring ones earthy business to a tidy conclusion, it was a time to make or revise wills and more importantly to make ones peace with God and to receive the last rights. The deathbed would also be a chance to spend final moments with family and friends and to give them the comfort of knowing a good death was had. The danger of a ‘bad death’ was that the departed having not prepared themselves would end up in Purgatory where their soul would languish until released into heaven. So, in early times any advance notice of death would allow a person to prepare themselves sufficiently to ensure a good death and Corpse Candles were such a warning, hence they were not feared. Over time the conception of a good death seemed to merge into the sole existence of all deaths being bad and something to be feared which likewise changed people’s attitudes to Corpse Candles.
There seems to be a distinction between Corpse Candles and Jack O’ Lanterns insomuch as the latter tends to be the souls of the departed that are intent on harm or locate themselves at the place where the person died.