Historians specialize because that’s pretty much their only option. Thousands of years of history and a great big world of many cultures means that you can’t know everything about everything.

Even though my degree required that I choose two areas of specialization (18th and 19th century Great Britain and Latin America), I don’t actually work as a historian, so I can wander around and learn whatever I’m interested in right now. Just so you know, that very rarely includes classical history.

This week I learned something that I feel I should have already known. A little embarrassed, I did some research on lych gates.

This Lych-Gate is the entrance to High Beach Church. A simple wooden structure with carving. Photo: Lynda Poulter via Wikimedia Commons

  • A lych gate is the gate into a churchyard, the entry into consecrated ground.
  • The word lych comes from the Old English word for corpse.
  • Lych gates have a pitched roof made of wood, clay tiles or thatch.
  • The original purpose was to provide a resting place for the shroud-wrapped body or coffin until the priest was ready to begin the service.

Overbury Lych gate entrance to the churchyard of Overbury church. Note the resting place for the coffin. Photo: Philip Halling via Wikimedia Commons

  • Lych gates were used extensively in the medieval period, and their use declined in the 18th century.
  • Because they were almost always made of wood, the original medieval gates have mostly been destroyed by either time or by man.

Lychgate to St Mary’s parish churchyard, Old Leake, Lincolnshire. Photo: Jeff Tomlinson via Wikimedia Commons

  • Some of the lych gates have been rebuilt throughout the centuries, especially during the Victorian Era, and surprisingly, during the time leading up to the millennium in 2000.
  • Some lych gates were rebuilt as memorials to prominent locals or as war memorials.
  • Benches were often included inside the lych gate for mourners or for guarding against bodysnatchers.

An American version. Lych-gate at the Church of St. James the Less, a National Historic Landmark in Philadelphia. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, PA-1725-A via Wikimedia Commons

  • There is a 13th-century lych gate at St. George’s in Beckenham, South London, which is said to be the oldest in England. It was restored in 1924, but the roof is essentially 700 years old.
  • The wooden posts were often decoratively carved.

This Swedish lych gate looks very, very Nordic. Garda (Garde) church is situated at Garde, Gotland, Sweden. Photo: Håkan Svensson (Xauxa) via Wikimedia Commons

  • Considering lych means corpse, there are a surprising number of business using lych gate in their business name. I found hotels and B&Bs, taverns, builders, a funeral home, and a black metal band.
  • If you are on Pinterest, there are tons of photos of lych gates, including ones that you can create or buy as garden decor.

So tell me, have you ever walked through a lych gate? And did you know it was more than just a gate?