William of Newburgh’s Historia Rerum Anglicarum, written in the 12th century, records two instances of people apparently rising from the dead, the first of which he describes as being a “serious nuisance”. One was dispatched by placing a charter of absolution on the corpse’s chest. The other body was chopped into pieces and burnt.
The idea of ‘staking’ the undead to pin them to their grave originates as a medieval southern Slavic practice associated with vampire epidemics. In these cases, exhumed bodies were considered to be unnatural, because they were undecayed, bloodied or apparently fatter than in life – and hence not truly dead. This is today usually attributed to a poor grasp of the processes of decay.
In Britain, it was not vampires but suicides that were buried with a stake through their heart. Those who had sanely killed themselves (i.e. not when mentally ill) were guilty of a ‘felo de se’ – a crime against the self, or self-murder – and this deserved punishment.
Their bodies were often dragged through the town and then buried without Christian rites in an unconsecrated place – usually a rural crossroads. For good measure a stake was then driven through their heart. Crossroads burials were only abolished by Act of Parliament in 1823. Yet, suicide technically remained a crime in the UK up to 1961, and doctors dealing with suicides were meant to inform the police.
Answered by Justin Pollard, author of Secret Britain: the Hidden Bits of Our History (John Murray, 2009). He is a question writer for the panel show QI on BBC One.