Weird Norfolk: The day the dead rose in Corpusty

Torchlight procession at Corpusty pic taken 6th nov 1976 m42998-14 pic to be used in lets talk nov

Something wicked this way comes: a torchlight procession at Corpusty in November 1976 - Credit: Archant

At the strike of midnight, the gravedigger prised open the lid of the coffin that contained the recently-buried body of a man whose sister stood before him.

Desperate for once last glance at her brother, whose funeral she had been forced to miss, as earth was brushed away and the lid moved to one side, she was once again face-to-face with the man she had grown up with.

And she realised, in a second, that one must always be careful what one wishes for.

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St. Peter's Church in the snow at Corpusty.
Dated 22 November 19

St. Peter's Church in the snow in November 1965 - Credit: B H Smith

In her landmark 1974 book The Folklore of East Anglia, author Enid Porter recalls a story told to her by the cousin of the deceased in his tale.

She wrote: “A macabre tale was told in the last century [19th] of a man who died in Corpusty in Norfolk. His sister, unable to attend his funeral, bribed the gravedigger to open the grave at midnight so that she could see her brother once more.

“When the coffin lid was raised, the dead man’s body grew very large, floated up like a ghost, groaned hoarsely and collapsed.”

It is well-documented that a dead body can make noises that can sound like moans and groans, particularly if they received emergency medical care just before they died.

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Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation had been used since 1732 as a technique to ‘bring back the dead’ and when trapped air escapes after death, it can sound like a groan – however, this would only be for a short time after a person has died.

Any stories of bodies sitting up straight, pointing menacingly or wailing are, though, products of an overactive imagination or…down to supernatural causes.

It’s a common belief that if anywhere is going to be haunted, it will be a graveyard, filled as they are with the dead and filled as we are with images from horror films and Halloween.

But those that believe in ghosts point out that spirits are far more likely to be tethered in death to a place that meant something to them, rather where they end their journey on earth.

Troy Taylor, author of Beyond the Grave, says: “Cemeteries gain a reputation for being haunted for reasons that include the desecration of the dead and grave robbery, unmarked or forgotten burials, natural disasters that disturb resting places, or sometimes even because the deceased was not buried properly.”

Others believe that ghosts in graveyards may well be spirits who were attached to the area where a graveyard is built before it came into existence.

Corpusty church

Corpusty church - Credit: Kate Wolstenholme

While there is no precise location given for the ghostly grave occupant, the only known cemetery in the village is at St Peter’s Church, which has watched over the village since the 14th century.

St Peter’s was the church which sparked the creation of the Norfolk Churches Trust which preserves wonderful old buildings no longer used for active worship.

For centuries Corpusty Church, high on hill, was a beacon of faith and a bulwark against despair. Here local people sang, celebrated and worshipped. It was a place of prayer and a treasury of the finest art and craft the villagers could create or commission.

Today, almost lost to decay, collapse and vandalism half a century ago, it once again stands as a place to see beautiful things – beginning with a series of memorial sculptures.

They are part of a plan to turn the empty church and its churchyard into a centre for art.

St Peter’s fell victim to thieves and vandals and later, nature itself as pigeons and ivy invaded the holy building. Corpusty became the catalyst for the organisation which today fights to preserve the county’s churches and save them from destruction.

Glass at Corpusty church

Glass at Corpusty church - Credit: Archant

In 1974, poet laureate John Betjeman included Corpusty church in his BBC documentary A Passion for Churches, his voice-over asking: “Do the stones speak? My word of course they do. You used us to build houses for your prayer and left us here to die besides the road.”

But the 14th century church did not die beside the road. It was adopted, first by the Friends of Friendless Churches and then the Norfolk Churches Trust.

A trail leads through the churchyard, beginning with an ark carved in pale creamy stone and topped with a metal cross and winding past old lichen-laced gravestones to a grassy patch alive with stunning new stone memorials.

There are lines of poetry in sparse flowing lettering, a stone with a delicately sculpted tree and bee hive, a kneeling shepherd and a memorial to a homeless man which frames the landscape beyond. 

These new stones do not mark graves but reveal what is possible for gravestones, with an art trail which leads through the churchyard and blends the old with the new.

Whether the disinterred ghost of a soul denied eternal rest remains, however, is another matter…