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To leave your body, walk straight with the dead and beware of Jenny Burn-Tail

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Tue, April 13th, 2010

Gita Jarrant’s 91 year-old husband Willi was wearing sunglasses and seated in a wheelchair when security officials at Liverpool Airport noticed he was dead.

Transporting corpses to faraway homelands has long been problematic. Ancient peoples from England to the Amazon blazed arrow-straight paths known as corpse roads. Dangers included ghostly creatures such as Jack O’ Lantern, Joan of the Wad and Jenny Burn-tail.

The couple and their daughter Anke were trying to board a plane for Berlin. The two women were arrested on the charge of failing to give notification of a death. They claimed they thought Willi was still alive. “He was pale,” said Anke last week, “but he wasn’t dead.”

Transporting corpses to faraway homelands for burial is a rite that goes back centuries, but the road there has always been problematic. In Medieval Britain, corpse roads connected rural villages to faraway cemeteries, which were located at large churches in the heart of the parish. Tariffs were charged and costly corpse carriers often had to be hired. Dangers along the way were many. Spirits were thought to move just above the ground and in a straight line. Fences, walls and buildings could disturb their movement, as could bends in the road. As a result, routes ran straight as an arrow, even over steep peaks and swampland.

On the night before a death a bright ball of light called a corpse fire often appeared in the graveyard and an eerie glowing blue orb called a corpse candle traced and retraced the road there. Corpses were only carried with feet pointed away from the family home. A continuous fear was that a corpse would return to haunt the living. Since running water stymies spirits, waterways spanned by bridges or stepping stones ensured a ghost would not be able to follow. Handcrafted trinkets consisting of thread woven across a hoop or wrapped around a bottle, if placed appropriately on a path, could also entangle spirits.

Mischievous spirits called Will-o’-the-wisps tried to lead travelers astray (one example was Puck, the “shrewd and knavish sprite…that merry wanderer of the night” from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The spirits of unbaptized or stillborn children—stuck between heaven and hell—also harassed travelers, as did shadowy creatures with names like Jack O’ Lantern, Joan of the Wad and Jenny Burn-tail.

The strangest attribute of corpse roads might be that they developed independently, across Europe and around the world.  One unearthed by archaeologists in Uppland, Sweden used to carry dead Viking chiefs and in the Netherlands fragments of straight paths known as spokenwegen (ghost roads) survive to this day. One thousand year-old straight tracks for transporting bodies run through the Costa Rican rainforest and at Chaco Canyon, an ancient Pueblo site in the high desert of northern New Mexico, a network of straight roads that starts in the canyon stretches sixty miles, ascending vertical cliffs via carved stairways. The Mayans built wide straight roads called sacbeob that linked cities with temples, some are said to run underground or through the air. Amongst the remote Kogi Indians of northern Colombia a network of paved mostly straight pathways connected stone cities and ceremonial sites. In the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California the Miwok Indians built tracks that one archaeologist described as “almost airline in their directness, running up hill and down dale without zigzags or detours.”

That nearly all corpse roads were straight is no coincidence. Marlene Dobkin de Rios, an eminent anthropologist and psychotherapist who has done extensive research on Amazon shamans, says the straight lines mimic poorly understood neurophysiological mechanisms that arise in trance states. These are images of simple forms; grids, dots, webs, spirals, tunnels, arabesques, nested curves. The shapes dance and shimmer before closed eyes and with eyes opened they can seem to be projected onto surfaces in the physical environment. Corpse roads, according to Dobkin de Rios, represent the mapping of a shaman’s out-of-body journey.

Of course, nowadays the biggest hindrance to transporting corpses is the laws imposed by states or nations, such as the one that stopped Gita and Anke at the Liverpool Airport. One recent article listed rules for the correct way to transport a corpse. The first step, consult a doctor to confirm the person is dead.

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