In medieval Britain, corpse roads provided a practical means for transporting corpses from remote communities to cemeteries in larger towns, that had burial rights. Concomitant expansion of church building throughout the UK during the late medieval period inevitably encroached on the territories of existing mother churches or minsters. Demands for autonomy from outlying settlements made minster officials feel that their authority was waning, as were their revenues, so they instituted corpse roads connecting outlying locations and their mother churches that alone held burial rights.
For some parishioners, this decision meant that corpses had to be transported long distances, sometimes through difficult terrain: usually a corpse had to be carried unless the departed was a wealthy individual. Many of the corpse roads have long disappeared, while the original purposes of those that still survive as footpaths have been largely forgotten, especially if features such as coffin stones, on which the coffin was placed while the parishioners rested, or crosses no longer exist.
Such corpse roads have developed a great deal of associated folklore. The essence of spirit lore is that spirits, that is, spirits of the dead, phantasms of the living, wraiths, or fairies move through the physical landscape along special routes. Such routes are conceived of as being straight and by the same token, convoluted or non-linear features hinder spirit movement.
Similarly, corpse roads would run in a straight line over mountains and valleys and through marshes. In towns, they would pass the houses closely or go right through them. The paths end or originate at a cemetery; therefore, such a path or road was believed to have the same characteristics as a cemetery, where spirits of the deceased thrive. As such, corpse roads became intrinsically associated with fairy roads and the supernatural entities which reside there.