EASINGWOLD has a splendid and fascinating old church with many sections dating to pre-Reformation times. It is dedicated to All Saints and St John and is worth a visit in an effort to date and identify most of its parts.

Clearly some are of very ancient origin, probably dating to the thirteenth century or earlier whilst other sections appear to have been developed later with no thought to the former historical aspects.

One curious object kept inside the church, however, is the parish coffin.

Its date is unknown but it is made of oak and coloured black, being of a rather long and narrow shape but instantly identifiable as a coffin.

Its use dates from the time that poor people were buried without coffins and for the sake of decency and decorum, deceased members of Easingwold parish were placed in this coffin and conveyed to the churchyard for interment. There the deceased was removed from the coffin and placed in the grave with the words of the burial service. The coffin was then returned to its place of storage in the base of the tower to await its next customer.

According to William Andrews’ book Old Church Lore (1891) there were other parish coffins of this kind in the north-east of England, one being at Stockton-on-Tees, with others at Howden in the East Riding of Yorkshire and one in St Oswald’s at Durham, There is on record a similar coffin which had hinged floorboards – with its inhabitant in situ it was placed over the grave, then the base was opened to deposit the deceased in the grave.

I have not found any details of this one, so it may be nothing more than a rumour! The purpose and use of parish coffins was disliked by everyone, particularly the poor and to avoid such indignity, they would work hard to plan ahead for their funeral.

William Andrews gives a good example in the epitaph of a lady at Macclesfield, Cheshire.

It reads:

DYD 19 NOVR, 1755 AGED

80 The chief concern of her life for the past 20 years was to order and provide for her funeral. Her greatest pleasure was to think and talk about it.

She lived many years on a pension of 9 pence per week and yet saved £5 which, at her request, was laid out for her funeral. Use of the Easingwold coffin meant that many people were buried in linen or even woollen garments but for the wealthy, stone coffins or even some made from iron were used. There is an ancient legend in the north-east of England that St Cuthbert’s body was floated down the River Tweed in a stone coffin.

To avoid the indignity of a pauper’s funeral or one that used the parish coffin, funeral clubs were established.

Members paid a monthly or annual subscription and the idea was to save sufficient for one’s funeral; if this failed, then the club would pay and recoup the cost from its members or make use of its own savings account.

At Egton Bridge in Eskdale there was such a club, although it was known as a guild. Its patrons were Saints Joseph and Hedda, and it was described as The Holy Guild of St Joseph and St Hedda.

Catholic guilds were created in 1829 by Father Peter Kaye in Manchester and others were established at Bradford, Sheffield and Huddersfield, all in Yorkshire. They were described as self-help groups that provided mutual support for their members, each one being independent of the others which meant there was no central organisation.

In 1840, the congregation of St Hedda’s Catholic Church in Egton Bridge in the North Riding of Yorkshire asked their parish priest, Father Henry Greenhalgh, to go to Bradford to find out more about the guilds. He did so and returned to found The Holy Guild of St Joseph and St Hedda. Among its functions was to encourage its members to plan ahead and save for their funerals, and if they could not afford to pay, the guild would ensure that none of its members would suffer the indignity of a pauper’s funeral, particularly one without a coffin.

The Egton Bridge Guild was unique because it continued to function long after the others had faded away probably due to the spread of life insurance policies. Most of the guilds across the country had ceased to function by the end of the 19th century but The Holy Guild of St Joseph and St Hedda continued well into the 21st century. Indeed, my mother was a member until her death in 2004 but she did not require guild funds for her funeral expenses – my dad worked for the Prudential Assurance Company Ltd.

The Yorkshire Dales, some distance from the North York Moors and from Egton Bridge church there were several Corpse Ways with a solitary church serving several widelyscattered communities. One example was Grinton whose ancient church of St Andrew has for centuries served all the villages in upper Swaledale – probably since Norman times. Known as The Cathedral of the Dales due to its imposing appearance and great size, evidence of its Roman Catholic origins can clearly be seen, one being the so-called “Squint” in the southwest corner. This is a hole through the wall, officially known as a hagioscope which, from the outside of the church provides a view of the altar in an 74 FRIDAY, MAY 16, 2014 WEEKEND dst.co.uk DARLINGTON & STOCKTON TIMES interior chapel. Its purpose was to allow severely diseased people to view the Elevation of the Host during the Consecration prior to Holy Communion; it kept the infected people away from the internal gathering whilst simultaneously allowing them to partake in Holy Mass.

Because this church served such a wide area, some of the corpses had to be carried for 16 miles or so from as far as Keld, and so light-weight wicker baskets were used instead of heavy coffins.

One odd Dales funeral custom occurred at Grassington. On the day of a funeral, chairs or trestles were placed outside the premises from which the coffin would be borne.

When the bearers brought the coffin with its contents out of the house, it was placed on those chairs or trestles whilst the mourners gathered around and the leader would open the singing with the first verse of a hymn. The others joined in and the remaining verses of the hymn would be sung in a slow, respectful manner.

When it was complete, the coffin was hoisted onto the shoulders of the bearers and a solemn procession was formed to carry the coffin to the parish church which in this case was across the river in adjoining Linton. It was customary for pedestrians to uncover the head and lower the eyes as the procession passed by.