MarySmith’sPlace – Banned burials

Amberley Publishing has a blog on its website to which authors are invited to contribute posts connected to their published books. I wrote this post after Secret Dumfries was published and it was put up the other day. Although it’s not a Christmas-related post, I thought I’d share it for those interested in past burial rites and church history. When burials in churches were banned in Scotland.


One of my favourite parts of Secret Dumfries was a quote from Alf Truckell’s preface to the 1928 edition of McDowall’s History of Dumfries. He gave a colourful and somewhat startling account of events in the year 1607, taken from the town’s Privy Council records: ‘A man tries to strangle a boy with a garter and throws him in the Mill Dam in March: the King’s messenger comes through the town in May, to find the inhabitants dressed in green and armed for the May Play: a couple of Baillie’s sons take up the cry “a Lorebourne”, their fathers repeat it: shots are fired and horses wounded: the Messenger and his men flee: church burials have been outlawed some years before, a family break open the church door with tree-trunks and bury a dead relative within, whereupon another family hurry home, grab a corpse, and bury it, and a third family dig up an uncle and are about to bury him when the Law finally turns up…’

I was especially intrigued by the references to church burials and how determined people were to defy the law and bury their relatives within the church itself. I had no time to do further research into when and why burials inside churches became illegal.

I read the extract at the launch of Secret Dumfries and was delighted when someone emailed me a part of an article from a magazine which said The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland outlawed church burials, which it deemed idolatrous, in 1576. Anyone breaking the new rule could be suspended from the church until they repented publicly (did they have to remove the body?) and minsters who allowed the practice would also be suspended.


St Mary’s Church (Secret Dumfries, Amberley Publishing) Photo credit: Keith Kirk Photographer

There were other good reasons for discontinuing the burial of bodies within the church. Before the Reformation wealthy and influential people such as the lairds (landed estate owners) were buried inside the church – sometimes beneath the family pew. This reduced the space available for the congregation. Also, bodies were not always interred very deeply and the smell of decomposition would have been unpleasant to say the least. Parishioners sometimes brought their dogs to church and dogs like nothing better than to dig up bones.

I almost included a paragraph in Secret Dumfries saying this practice of sometimes shallow interment inside churches gave rise to the expression ‘stinking rich’. I’m so glad my word count was at its limit and I didn’t because, according to the website, apparently the expression only came into use in the twentieth century.

The 1576 act was repeated in 1588, 1631 and in 1643, which is probably a good indication of people’s resistance to it. One rather extreme, and unpleasant, example occurred in 1607 in Durisdeer, near Dumfries. Adam Menzies, laird of Enoch had buried his young son in his family’s aisle of the kirk. Sir James Douglas, a staunch Presbyterian, of Drumlanrig had servants dig up the child’s body and rebury it in a shallow grave away from the church. Adam Menzies and his wife, who had just had another child, were understandably very upset. Despite being attacked by the minister, he reburied his son’s body in the kirk and appealed to the Privy Council. Although he was breaking the law regarding burials inside a church, the Privy Council took his side, allowing his child to remain in the family’s burial aisle.

As for the family who used tree trunks to break down the door in the Dumfries church and set off a chain reaction as quoted at the start of this article, I was very pleased to learn his identity. According to Maureen M. Meikle in her book, The Scottish People 1490-1625, it was a John Irving who wanted to bury his mother.

Secret Dumfries provides a fascinating glimpse into the lesser known aspects of the town’s history

Available here


29 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Banned burials

  1. Hi Mary,
    Funeral and burial customs are different even in the US. I went to mortuary school in my twenties and worked in the industry for 12 years. During the period you wrote about, the science of embalming the dead using the circulatory system didn’t begin until later in the 17th century. In the US it was used during the civil war. Burial within churches is new to me other than the rich and the church hierarchy. I enjoyed your historical post. Merry Christmas

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Chuck, thanks for commenting on my post. I think from what little reading I’ve done about it that most of the people buried in Scottish parish churches were fairly well to do – the local landowner or laird, for example. The Church banned it because they were taking up too much space (not to mention the smell if not buried deeply). People obviously felt very strongly about it. Fascinating you were in the mortuary industry. I have a friend from Canada whose father was in the same trade. Glad you enjoyed the post. Merry Christmas to you, too.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dear Mary,
        My typing has gone Shucking focking since I got my new keyboard (an early Christmas present to myself). It is so bouncy! Either that or the old adage is true and a bad workman always blames his tools…. I know which one I prefere, but the choice is yours. Have a lovely Christmas or what I should have said was Have a Mary Christmas.
        Much love yr mate Paulxx

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! Here in old churches and cathedrals, there are many people buried inside or in the cloister, and yes, they usually are the kings or aristocrats of the era, although quite a few merchants and tradesmen are also buried there. I didn’t know burials in churches had been forbidden but it does make sense. Thanks, Mary. Fascinating, as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Olga, glad you enjoyed it. I do want to do more research as I’m fascinated to know why it was so important to people back then to be buried inside the church – nearer to God, maybe? Or a sign of status? Happy Christmas 🙂


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