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Corpse candles and phantom funerals

Phil Carradice

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In Wales, Christmas and New Year have long been the time for ghost stories and spooky tales.

When the nights are dark and the wind howls around the corners of the house, it is the ideal moment to gather the family together around the fire and enthral, intrigue and frighten them with stories of headless horsemen, strange apparitions and things like the mysterious corpse candles that once haunted the imaginations of our ancestors.

Corpse candles were directly related to corpse roads – corpse roads being exactly what the term suggests, old roadways which from the medieval period onwards were used for taking dead bodies to the church, chapel or burial ground. 

Corpse candles were small balls of yellow or blue light that seemed to hover around these roads, usually at dusk – or, sceptics might say, once the innkeeper had closed up shop for the night and sent everyone on their unsteady way home!

As might be expected in the rural parts of Wales in the days before industrialisation brought an influx of people to the country, legends and folk tales quickly grew up around these strange lights. It was not long before they left the rigid confinements and limitations of the corpse roads and became an entity in themselves.

The corpse candles, as people who saw them would testify, invariably travelled in a straight line, taking the direct route from the home of the deceased man or woman to the church or graveyard. They went over mountains, valleys, even rivers and marsh land, never bothering with traditional routes and seeming to be able to travel wherever they wished.

It is easy to find logical explanations for the appearance of the corpse candles – lightning, static electricity, the light from a dying sun reflecting on water or stones – but to a superstitious and isolated people they were thought to have spiritual or supernatural origins. Before long the Canwyllau Cyrff, as they were called in Welsh, had become more than just apparitions, they were regarded as manifestations of death.

A series of corpse candles hovering in the air meant that someone, perhaps in a house near the lights, or even the person witnessing them, was going to die. Some said the candles would follow the route that the funeral procession would later take along the corpse road. Sometimes, legend declared, the lights would not be simple balls of fire but would appear as actual candles. Occasionally they were accompanied by a hollow skull.

There are dozens of stories about corpse candles in Wales, most of them dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries. Anything earlier has long been subsumed into legend where it is almost impossible to separate the truth from the inevitable embroidering of story tellers.

In one famous tale, three men were tossed out of their coracle on the river near Llandeilo. They were drowned in the accident – and the stories began. It was reported that just a few days before, passengers on the Carmarthen-Llandeilo coach had seen three corpse candles hovering above the water at the exact spot where the three men drowned.

Most writers or historians from the 19th century seem happy just to relate the stories without trying to account for the phenomenon. An exception was James Motley whose account of a corpse candle experience is quoted in Richard Holland's book South Wales Ghost Stories.

In his 1848 account of corpse candles, Motley wrote that they:

“seem to be of electrical origin, when the ears of the traveller's horse, the extremity of his whip, his spurs or any other projecting points appear tipped with pencils of light… the toes of the rider's boots, and even the tufts of hair at the fetlocks of his horse, appeared to burn with a steady blue light, and on the hand being extended, every finger immediately became tipped with fire.”

Clearly Motley had encountered an electrical phenomenon of some sort on his trip across the mountains. He survived, with no prognosis of oncoming doom.

Corpse candles were often a feature of phantom funerals, mysterious processions along the corpse roads, foretelling a funeral about to take place in the village. Such processions were often accompanied by the sound of muffled sobbing or even the shuffling of many feet along the corpse road.

With the coming of heavy industrialisation to Wales, legends such as that of the corpse candles and the phantom funerals began to die out. Now it is only in the firelight of a winter evening that they re-emerge, as potent and as terrifying as they ever were.

But then, the light goes on and the visions disappear. Reality hits home with the realisation that the old legends are exactly that – legends and folk tales.

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