Coffins And Corpses

A story in the Forest Review relates a gruesome incident from the mid-nineteenth century. Arthur Williams, who used to live near Chepstow, recalls his grandfather describing the “coffin seat” at Penallt. This was at the foot of a large oak tree, on the steep hill up to the old church, and is where the mourners used to rest the coffin while they sat down to recover their wind before proceeding up to the churchyard for the burial. A hundred years or more ago, relatives carried coffins for miles since there was very little transport and very few decent roads on which horse-drawn vehicles could survive a journey.

Depending on the religious inclinations of the mourners, the rest period at the seat would be used as a hymn-singing sessions, or as an opportunity to quench the thirst of the bearers and the relatives. Frequently, funeral parties would take along with them jars of home-brewed ale and cider as well as substantial meat pies.

Many tales have been told of these funeral excursions, and one, supposedly connected with the stone seat at Penallt, concerned a wealthy but miserly old farmer who, shortly after his wife died, wooed and wedded his dairymaid, a young woman of twenty.

Two years later the old man died, and the funeral party, well fortified with ale, stopped at the coffin seat for a rest. The bearers, a little clumsily, set the coffin down with a heavy jolt, at which a groaning sound was heard to come from within. Hastily a carpenter was fetched, and the lid was opened. The shocked mourners saw the “corpse” slowly sit up and heard it ask for water. It would appear that the old man had been in a cataleptic state which had obviously fooled the country doctor into a diagnosis of death!

A few years passed, and the old man fell ill; when he died a more rigorous medical check was made. The funeral party took the same path as on the first occasion, but when the bearers were approaching the stone seat with the obvious intention of depositing the coffin for a well-earned rest, the young widow rushed forward crying: “There’ll be no stopping this time – get on to the churchyard with him!”

[from: Penallt – A Village Miscellany]