Burial customs vary wildly across the long span of human history. From the mysterious bog burials of Northern Europe to Egypt’s elaborate tombs and mummification procedures, how a culture disposes of its dead can reveal much about its customs and values. This is true both of conventional, reverent burials, and of profane burials.
A burial is considered “profane” when the body of the deceased is somehow desecrated to show disapproval of the person’s actions in life. One more modern example of a profane “burial” was when the bodies of the Nazi war criminals who were executed in the wake of the Nuremberg Trials were cremated and secretly scattered into a river. This was to prevent Nazi holdouts from using their graves as a kind of shrine, and it sent the clear message that society deemed their actions so abominable that it their punishment extended beyond the end of their lives.
Perhaps some of the strangest examples of profane burials comes from medieval Europe, particularly England. Lonely rural crossroads in England host a dark, sad secret. Many are the sites of profane burials, where the bodies of suicide victims were laid to an uneasy rest.
Suicide—A Crime Against God and Man
In the modern world, suicide is viewed with largely sympathetic eyes. While a lot of stigma still exists around the topic, and there are certainly a lot of myths and misunderstanding around it, by and large the average person today has more sympathy for suicide victims than the average person in medieval and late medieval England.
In the medieval world, suicide was seen as a crime against God and Man. Thomas Aquinas, whose works profoundly influenced medieval theology, posited that suicide was sinful for three reasons. The first was that killing oneself violated the divine order: God gives life and takes life away, and taking your own life is taking that decision out of God’s hands into your own. The second reason was that suicide was a crime against society, because everyone belongs to a community and killing yourself does harm to that community. Finally, the act of suicide upends the natural law, because the natural tendency of living things is to try to preserve its own life, not lose it.
These ideas were reflected in the laws and customs of the day. Suicides faced spiritual consequences for their actions: they were denied a proper Christian burial in consecrated ground and posthumously excommunicated, which put their souls in jeopardy of being trapped forever in purgatory or worse being sent directly to hell. They also faced legal penalties. Suicide was deemed a felony, a crime against the Crown. This is stemmed from the feudal system of early medieval England, where landless peasants swore fealty to lords, who in turn swore fealty to the king. Depriving ones lord, and ultimately thing king, of one’s labor by killing oneself was seen as theft, and the Crown was in its rights to seek repayment in the form of the deceased’s property. It was common then for a suicide’s property to be confiscated by the monarchy, and for families to go to great lengths to conceal suicides to prevent this.
This situation led to a fairly complicated legal dilemma surrounding suicide. Suicides were tried posthumously, by jury (as an aside, attempted suicide was also a crime.) Suicide was considered a felo d se (Latin for “felon of himself”), but for a crime to be considered a felony, it had to be committed with malicious intent. Even medieval and late medieval people recognized the role of mental illness in suicide. While the level of sympathy varied depending on the time period, by and large suicides that were due to such things as severe mental illness and debilitating pain from physical illness were more kindly looked upon. In the late medieval/early modern period, English law recognized the concept of non compos mentis (“not of sound mind”), although through most of the period the majority of suicides were ruled as felo de se.
Once a suicide was determined to have indeed been done with premeditation, the gruesome custom of a profane crossroads burial would commence.
Where Christianity and Pagan Folkways Collide
Once a suicide was deemed a felony, the body would be stripped naked then tied to a wagon and dragged through the streets to a crossroads far from town. There, in front of a crowd of witnesses, the body would be desecrated. This could be achieved in a variety of ways. The body might be laid in the grave north to south (Christians were buried East to West), face down, and then staked through the heart. The body might have been staked through the heart, then decapitated and the head placed between the legs. Some bodies were buried under a pile of stones, a very visible symbol for passersby.
Crossroads were also chosen because it was believed that the ghost of a suicide, who would come up out of their grave at night, would be confused by the choice of four paths and stay deliberating until dawn (but heaven help anyone who stumbled across them in the meantime!) Stakes were utilized to pin the spirit into place and keep it from getting out of the grave, and to deny them from rising up to meet God come Judgment Day.
The custom came from a collision of Christian thought and pagan folkways. Crossroads have long been a place where the walls of reality were thought to thin, where the spirit world could more easily bleed into our corporeal world. They were places for the spirits, for demons, and for things “outside” the community. Ancient cultures would often leave garbage and other unclean materials at crossroads. Burying the bodies of executed criminals at crossroads was also common, probably also for the practical reason that it would send a vivid message to any travelers on the road and make them rethink any nefarious doings they might be planning.
Suicides, then, were lumped in with murderers and other criminals and treated as such, although their crime was considered more heinous by medieval and early modern people than even murder, largely due to Saint Thomas Aquinas’ reasoning outlined above.
The End of Crossroads Burials
Crossroads burials continued straight through the medieval and early modern periods into the 19th century. The last known crossroads burial occurred in June 1823. Abel Griffiths was a 22 year old law student who killed himself after murdering his father. He was buried at a crossroads in the traditional manner. The crowd attending the spectacle held up George IV’s carriage. The burial was highly criticized in papers, and public outcry combined with pressure from the King led to the 1823 ‘Burial of Suicide Act’.
While suicide was viewed more sympathetically at that time, suicides were still buried on the north side of churchyards, with unbaptized infants, the excommunicated and executed criminals. Up until 1870, the government could still seize suicide victim’s property, and religious sanctions also continued. Suicide was a criminal act in England right up until the Suicide Act of 1961.
Society as a whole has come a long way when it comes to attitudes toward suicide, although there is still a lot of progress to be made. The graves of those poor souls who succumbed to suicide so many years ago still dot the English countryside, silent reminders of the superstitious past.
Halliday, Robert. “Criminal graves and rural crossroads.” British Archaeology, no 25, June 1997. Retrieved from: http://www.archaeologyuk.org/ba/ba25/BA25FEAT.HTML
Kushner, Howard L. “American Suicide: A Psychocultural Exploration.” Rutgers University Press. January 1, 1991. Pgs 17-20
Laskey, Mark. “Rites of Desecration: Suicide, Sacrilege, and Profane Burial at the Crossroads.” Cvltnation.com. September 8, 2014. Cvlt Nation. September 26, 2015. http://www.cvltnation.com/rites-of-desecration-suicide-sacrilege-and-profane-burial-at-the-crossroads/