The Yew: Tree of the Dead

Cemeteries and graveyards have long been associated with well-tended trees and flowerbeds, with rows of benign greenery, marking boundaries and filling spaces between the graves. They are often seen as simple additions to a burial site, so as not to leave the environment as a flat field, punctuated be headstones alone. However, in the majority of cemeteries and burial grounds, this is not and has never been the case. Certain types plants and trees have not been installed in reckless abandon; their symbolism and importance has filtered down the line, through decades of the public psyche.

But why were trees ever important in cemeteries? Following centuries of issues with overcrowded city burial grounds, where tales of stench and bodies piled-high were commonplace, laws had to be made. Prior to 1832, there were serious concerns of private companies buying burial grounds, running them immorally and exploiting the local population for profit. The cholera outbreak of 1830-31 claimed over 52,000 lives, further emphasising the need for action and sanitation.  In 1832, the Burial Acts were put forward, encouraging the formation of several large cemeteries outside London. Aside from easing the overcrowding issue, these were to be sprawling, park-like affairs, designed by architects and gardeners; all with visual enjoyment at their heart. Most cemeteries that were founded after these acts followed similar suit, placing the need for appropriate greenery alongside their architectural needs.

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St. Edward’s Church, Stow-on-the Wold. Photo: Elaine McDonald.

While flora and fauna in cemeteries is a fascinating topic of its own, today’s post will just be focusing on one. The granddaddy of all cemetery trees, the yew.

Most of us don’t visit a park and sit a while, considering the historical importance of the choice of trees and shrubs (most of us are avoiding children and dog poo). However, we may be more inclined for reflection in a cemetery. Most cemeteries, especially those built in the 19thcenturies, will consciously feature an abundance of yew trees.

The yew has been firmly regarded as a symbolic and mystical tree for centuries, with legends about the tree arising worldwide.

CelticMeaningYewTree
Yew Berries. Photo: http://www.whats-your-sign.com

One of the most common beliefs associated with the yew is that Pontius Pilate was born under or played within the branches of a yew. Considering Pilate is regarded as the condemner of Christ, this association with death can be regarded has having taken root over 2000 years ago. Prior to this, the yew was upheld as a sacred tree by druids; a practise which continues to this day. The yew was so integral to druidic death rituals that in the Catholic Counter Reformation of the 16thcentury, a bishop petitioned for their planting to be banned. Nowadays, contemporary pagan orders such as the Genesis Order of Druids still regard the tree as sacred but maintain a focus on reverence of nature as a whole, replanting many species of trees when possible.

The yew was also sacred to the Greek goddess Hecate, who is strongly associated with witchcraft, necromancy and death. Several other Greek myths include the usage of a yew branch as a means of purification of the dead as they entered Hades.

But why the yew?

The yew tree can be regarded as a cyclical or regenerative tree – when its branches droop and reach the ground, they can take root and form new trees. This ongoing cycle of ageing and rebirth came to symbolise death and resurrection.

Saint Anne Chapel in Yew Tree in Normandy
The Saint Anne Chapel within the hollow trunk of one of two 1,000-1,300 year old Yew trees in the cemetery at La Haye-de-Routot village in Normandy, France. Photo: Chris Hellier/CORBIS

The yew holds strong associations with the story of Christ’s Passion, with yew trees integral to Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday celebrations. In early Christianity, the custom arose of burying pieces of yew with the deceased. In the 19thcentury, this custom was further embellished by poets who wrote of the yew’s usage in burials and in anointing bodies.

This strong association between the yew and the church has grown to mean that most ancient examples of yew trees in the UK are found within churchyardsand ecclesiastical/consecrated environments. Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica briefly explores the relationship between the yew and the church, saying thatno other type of ancient tree occurs so frequently inside church grounds.’ He concludes that, in the western world, there is no other tree so closely associated with a place of worship.

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Yew at St Georges Church, Crowhurst. Photo: Wim Brinkerink via MonumentalTrees.com

Thomas Laquer’s work ‘The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains’ cites that ‘At least 250 yews today are as old or older than the churchyards in which they stand.Trees for Life dig deeper, professing that ‘In other cases it seems that very old yew trees may have already been growing on a site before the earliest church building was erected there; some, such as the one beside Fortingall’s church may even predate Christianity itself.’

Interestingly, surveys have shown that such churchyard yew trees are most commonly found on the south and west sides of a church, rarely the north. This is because most burials take place on the south and west sides; the yew accompanies them. Robert Turner, a seventeenth century scholar and translator of mystic texts, suggested that this alignment of the yew and the deceased was to harness the power of the yew’s branches. They would in turn ‘“draw and imbibe” the “gross and oleaginous Vapours exhaled out of the graves by the setting Sun.” Turner also documented the belief that yews would prevent roaming spirits; similarly, many monks believed the yew to ‘drive away devils.’

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Yew at Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol. Photo: Dan Flew

 

However, not all qualities of the tree are so wholesome; ingestion of the trees needles and seeds can be fatal. While not an uplifting association, it provides another unshakable link with death. Robert Turner documented the belief that the yew’s roots were poisonous as they “run and suck nourishment” from the dead, whose flesh is “the rankest poison that could be.”

Indeed, even Shakespeare referenced the deadly qualities of the yew in several works.

In Richard II, the yew is regarded as being ‘double fatal’ (Act 3 Scene 2), Twelfth Night includes the line ‘My shroud of white, stuck all with yew.’ (Act 2 Scene 4) and the witches within Macbeth concoct a poison including ‘slips of yew, sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse.’ (Act 4 Scene 1)

 

In less poetic realms, the poisonous qualities of the yew tree had a very practical purpose in cemetery building. As many burial spaces were open to adjoining farmland and livestock, it was hoped that the planting of yew trees would deter any wandering hooves from damaging the sacred ground.

Fortingall yew - WTML Ed Parker
The Fortingall Yew Photo: WTML/Ed Parker

Today, many of these grand trees stand strong and tall in the world of the cemetery.

Within the UK, there are several cemeteries named after yew trees, with one of the largest Catholic burial spaces in Liverpool named simply ‘Yewtree!’

With yews commonplace in and around so many churches, cemeteries and graveyards, there are few who are notable for anything other than their age. Two of the oldest recorded yews are the St Cynog church yew, which is thought to be around 5000 years old and the Ankerwycke yew; thought to be around 2000 years old. The Fortingall yew in Perthshire is not as ancient as many others yet, In the 19thcentury, it is said that funeral processions would pass through the arch in the tree’s split trunk. The Crowhurst yew in Surrey was also famous for its split trunk, which was regarded as looking like a door. In the mid 1800s, a table and chairs were added to the interior of the tree, alongside the discovery of a civil war era cannonball within the trunk itself!

Nevern Yew Peter Heard
The Nevern Yew – Photo: Peter Heard

In Nevern Church, Pembrokeshire, a number of ancient Yew trees thrive. The path to the church gates is lined by ancient yew trees, many regarded to be over 700 years old. However, one tree in particular has proved to be far more infamous than its brethren. The ‘Bleeding Yew’ has been producing blood-red sap for ‘as long as anyone can remember’. Similarly, ‘Nobody seems to be able to explain the phenomenon of this yew nor does anyone seem to know why this is happening.’ Many trees produce sap for a short while after sustaining damage, yet the Bleeding Yew at Nevern has never ceased. Understandably, numerous legends and superstitions have built up around the tree, yet the most fitting for a church tree is that ‘it is bleeding in sympathy with Jesus as he was crucified on the cross.’

 

The yew is a fascinating and ancient tree, with more associated legends than any other. When passing through your local cemetery or churchyard, why not try to find one? Just remember not to eat any seeds!

 

 

 

 

Sources / References

 

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2005/05/10/magnificent_seven_feature.shtml

 

https://www.timetravel-britain.com/articles/london/cemeteries.shtml

 

http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/macbeth/macbethglossary/macbeth1_1/macbethglos_yew.html

 

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/10/31/beneath-the-yew-trees-shade/

 

https://treesforlife.org.uk/into-the-forest/trees-plants-animals/trees/yew/

 

https://www.nevern-church.org.uk/the-bleeding-yews/

 

https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2018/01/ancient-yew-trees/

 

Many thanks to Genesis Order of Druids (Portsmouth) Archdruidess Morwen for answering my questions.

 

 

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