Why were people who died by suicide historically buried at crossroads?
Suicide used to be regarded as shocking and blasphemous, and a coroner's verdict of 'felo de se' – literally crime against oneself – usually resulted in the body being buried at a crossroads, with a stake through the heart, and with no religious ceremony. The dead's property could also be confiscated…
Historians and archaeologists have long speculated on the reasons for crossroads burials. Perhaps it was the nearest resting place the deceased would get to any sort of religious symbol. It may also have been because execution grounds were commonly at crossroads – eg Tyburn in London – and suicide was a crime.
Superstition may also have come into it: a crossroads might confuse the ghost of the deceased. Archaeological evidence suggests that crossroads burials of executed individuals have been going on since Anglo-Saxon times.
Crossroads burials ended with the increasing understanding of mental illness and depression, particularly after the suicide of Lord Castlereagh in 1822. Many Londoners were also shocked in 1823 at the crossroads burial of Abel Griffiths – a disturbed young man who had killed his father – at the junction of Eaton Street, Grosvenor Place and the King’s Road.
Crossroads burials were abolished by an act of parliament the same year. Few objected, although one argument against abolition was that the disgrace of crossroads burial was a ‘deterrent’ to suicide.
Answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.
This Q&A first appeared in BBC History Magazine