A lych gate, lich gate or corpse gate is a roofed-over gateway into a churchyard, a liminal place between consecrated and unconsecrated ground. Lych derives from the Old English līċ meaning corpse.
Some corpses had to be be transported over long distances along lych or corpse roadsRoads that once provided the means of transporting the dead to churchyards for burial. to a place of burial in consecrated ground. The original purpose of the lych gate was to provide a place in which to rest the shrouded body, provide shelter for the funeral party and a place to meet the priest before entering the church or graveyard. Benches inside the lych gate could used by the mourners who had brought the corpse for burial.
Lych gates are known to have been built in the 7th century, but were more common in medieval times, after which their use declined. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer begins the Order for the Burial of the Dead with the words:
The priest metyng the Corps at the Churche style, shalt say: Or els the priestes and clerkes shalt sing, and so goe either into the Churche, or towardes the grave[a]The Priest and Clerks meeting the corpse at the entrance of the Church-yard, and going before it, either into the Church, or towards the grave, shall say, or sing
Some lych gates had a stone on which to rest the corpse before it entered the churchyard. Coffins were uncommon, and only for the rich; most bodies were buried in shrouds until the late 1700s. In the 1600s woollen shrouds were made compulsoryThere were three Burying in Woollens Acts passed during the 17th century, to support the domestic woollen trade in the face of increasing competition from foreign imports to support the wool producers.
Lych gates were originally simple shelters built of wood, with a spreading tiled or thatched roof and gabled ends; few early examples survive. The Victorians revived the practice of building lych gates, some as memorials, and largely built them in stone.
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