Even though it is almost May, here it seems to be suddenly Winter again, so it seems like a good time for another ghost story. Today is the feast day of Saint Mark, and if you had been sitting outside your church since eleven o’clock last night until around one o’clock this morning, you might have been treated to a pretty ghoulish spectacle. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth century, many believed that if you sat in the porch of your church during the night before Saint Mark’s Day you would see a ghostly procession of all the people that would die in your parish during the following year. The ghost of a living person is called a doppelgänger, which means double walker, and it’s rarely a good thing to see one.
There is an account from Lincolnshire in the parish of Burton which dates from 1631. It is given by a Gervase Hollis, a colonel in the service of Charles I. He was later made Mayor of Grimsby and also an MP, so presumably he was not given to flights of fancy. He had the story from a Mr Rampaine, who was minister to Great Grimsby, but had once been household chaplain to Sir Thomas Monson in Burton. Two men had decided to carry out the St. Mark’s Eve vigil. It was a bright moonlit night and by around midnight they had seen nothing and were thinking of giving up.
But suddenly, all light vanished and they found they could not move. Then, they saw the approaching light of a torch. Then the minister appeared, followed by a figure in a winding sheet moving towards them. They recognised the figure as one of their neighbours. As they drew closer, the church doors flew open, the two figures went inside and the doors slammed shut behind them. The two men, who were still rooted to the spot, heard the muffled sounds of a funeral service, followed by the rattling of bones and a noise like earth being shovelled into a grave. Then all was silent. But suddenly, the figure of the minister came again, with another of their neighbours and the whole scene played over exactly as before. This happened five times. When it was all over, the moon reappeared and they found they were free to move again, which they did, quite quickly.
The next day they were both quite ill and stayed at home, but when they met up again, they compared notes. Both agreed on the identity of the first three figures, but neither recognised the infant and neither had ever seen the old man before. Their three neighbours died that year in the order that they had predicted. Then, soon after, a woman in the town gave birth to a child who died. That just left the old man. That Winter, Sir John Monson was sent a message from his friends in Cheshire. The old man who carried the message had travelled on foot over the Pennines. The weather had been terrible and he was in a bad way when he arrived. The two men immediately recognised him as the stranger they had seen at the church. After two days, he was dead.
Of course, this is a terrible superstition to have. If you had a grudge against someone, it would be really easy to just pretend you’d seen them in a Saint Mark’s Eve procession. But there is one thing that might stop you ever trying it in the first place. Once you’ve taken part in the vigil, you have to carry on doing it. Every year. For the rest of your life. If you ever fall asleep while you’re keeping watch, that will be the year that you die.
The photo above, if you’re curious, is from an installation by an art student in the Czech Republic called Jakub Hadrava. Ghosts made from plaster sitting in the pews of an abandoned church. The church was closed up in 1968, after part of the roof collapsed during a funeral service. The installation has created worldwide interest and raised enough money to have the medieval church restored to its former glory. If you want to see more, there are some lovely ones here and also a video.