Wednesday 7 April 2010

Lych gate

Many traditional church buildings in England are approached through a lych gate. This is true of St Werburgh, Hanbury.

Typically, a lych gate consists of a shed-like roof, covered with tiles or thatch and supported by four or six wooden pillars, with or without additional embellishments or decorative features. There is also, not surprisingly, a gate!

There are, however other styles of lych gate. In some parts of the country, lych gates are more commonly constructed from stone and St Keverne's church in Cornwall even has a chapel of rest built above its lych gate.

The word lych originates in Saxon English and has survived through to modern day usage. The Saxon word lych meant corpse and the purpose of the lych gate was as a resting place for a body in transit to a funeral service. In the middle ages, bodies were commnly buried in shrouds, rather than coffins, and sometimes had to be carried over distances to reach the church. The shrouded body would be laid on a bier under the lych gate while the funeral procession awaited the priest. Often the first part of the buriel service would then be read under the shelter of the gate, before the cortege continued into the church.

The oldest lych gate in England is believed to be at St George's churchyard in Beckenham, South London, and dates from the 13th century. It is likely that lych gates date back long beyond this but, being wooden structures, no older ones have survived to the present day. Most current examples date from the 15th onwards, including some new ones built to commemorate the Millennium.

I've never before stopped to think about the origins of the lych gate, but I think I find this slightly creepy. Without wanting to be irreverant, it strikes me as being a bit like a bus stop for bodies.

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