There are numerous reasons given as to why yew trees have become ubiquitous in our graveyards. Some trace it back to ancient times when druids considered the tree sacred. In pagan tradition the evergreen yew trees were symbolic of the regeneration of the natural world and the spirit. Yew trees were therefore planted near temples or sacred spaces and over time as these pagan temples were replaced by Christian churches the trees remained. Yew trees were therefore assimilated as sacred trees from pagan to Christian tradition.
Yew trees can live for an inordinately long time and it has been suggested that some yew trees are many thousands of years old. One such tree is found in the churchyard at Coldwaltham, West Sussex. It was dated a number of years ago to about 1,000 BC and so it has been suggested that it was originally planted by pagan druids. One of the reasons that yew trees live so long in graveyards is because here, unlike in woodlands, they have no competition from other trees, crowding out the light.
A further theory as to why yew trees are planted in graveyards stems from the symbolism of the trees themselves. The evergreen nature of the tree is seen by some as a nod to the resurrection of the body and the immortality of the soul. It is thought that this symbolism made them an appropriate tree to give hope in a graveyard.
There have also been practical suggestions for the planting of yew trees in graveyards. Roy Vickery in A Dictionary of Plant-Lore suggests that graveyards were one of the few places in a village that free-roaming cattle and other livestock could not trample through. Yew berries are poisonous to animals and so these trees were planted in graveyards so stop the animals getting at them and falling ill. Yew wood was excellent for making bows and the theory has been proposed that during the Middle Ages villages needed to have a crop of yew trees to provide archers with good long bows. As a result the trees would be planted in graveyards where they could not be damaged by animals.
This theory however does not stand up to scrutiny as the huge amount of yew trees needed to make sufficient longbows for an entire army could not be covered by the few yew trees in graveyards. Evidence from the decrees of Edward IV, Richard III and Elizabeth I suggests that in fact most of the wood from which long bows were fashioned was imported from Italy, the Netherlands or Germany. This implies that there was either not sufficient native crop to cover the needs of archers or perhaps that English yew was not of as good quality for bow-making as imported yew.
Another more prosaic reason to plant yews near churches was because their bushy branches, which stayed green year round, were thought to provide wind breaks for the church, protecting it from bad weather. This would have been a very far-sighted bit of planning by our ancestors as yews are relatively slow growing and would have taken hundreds of years to be big enough to afford a church any form of protection from the weather, but it’s a nice idea!
One folk belief has that yew trees especially thrived in ground enriched with rotting corpses, and another states that the trees themselves helped to absorb the putrefaction of the rotting bodies, keeping the air in the graveyard nice and clean. Certainly some superstition has grown up around the yew tree due to its association with cemeteries – some believe that yew trees are good to plant in cemeteries as their roots entwine through the eye sockets of the dead, preventing them from rising again. Perhaps because it was familiar in graveyards the yew was inevitably associated with death and some held that yew branches should never be brought into the house or death would follow. Enid Porter recalls that in the Fens yew trees were regarded with suspicion as witches were said to gather underneath them.
One final, perhaps fanciful, theory was put forwards by the correspondent to The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1779. He proposed that yew trees were planted near churches so that their evergreen branches could be harvested and used during the parades for Palm Sunday on which it was tradition to wave palm fronds, a plant of the warmer climes which could not be sourced in Britain. His theory is not a bad one as I imagine the yew branches might also have been used to decorate the interior of the church in winter. I certainly remember at my primary school in Oxford we would take part in a Palm Sunday parade each year and in place of palm fronds we would fashion leaves from green sugar paper.
So it seems there are numerous theories as to why yew trees are associated with graveyards and perhaps the truth is that each of these theories holds some merit and has added to the rich tapestry of tales and folklore which surround this tree. What is clear is that some of the yew trees found in the churchyards of Britain are very ancient indeed and this seems to confirm that the yew tree has been sacred for many thousands of years.
Books referenced: Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore by Edith Porter, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969
A Dictionary of Plant-Lore by Roy Vickery, OUP, 1995
Image sources: The flowering plants, grasses, sedges, & ferns of Great Britain, London, F. Warne, 1905