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Yew Trees—Why in Britain’s Graveyards?

Yew Trees—Why in Britain’s Graveyards?

 Yew Trees—Why in Britain’s Graveyards?


IN 1656 a Church of England clergyman wrote: “Our forefathers were particularly careful in preserving churchyard Yews which by reason of their perpetual verdure were emblematical . . . of the immortality of the soul.” Such is the tradition. What are the facts?

The linking of evergreens with immortality goes back in time. In Wales the tradition of the yew as such a symbol is linked with ancient Druid beliefs and customs. In England long before the Christian era, yew trees were planted on pagan temple sites, and they were eventually adopted by the church as “a holy symbol.” Traditions die hard, and although Nonconformists did not follow the trend, modern British cemeteries still feature yew trees in their flora.

What does the Bible say about the immortality of the soul? Nowhere does it link the words “immortality” or “immortal” with “soul.” England’s Archbishop of York, in the lecture “A Theological Understanding of Life and Death,” contrasted “crude ideas about the soul leaving the body” with a basic Bible truth. “There is nothing in our bodies which somehow departs when we die,” he said.

What Kind of a Tree Is the Yew?

The English yew [Taxus baccata] is a stately evergreen that grows slowly and attains a height of 30 or 40 feet. Many of the larger specimens in Britain are, in fact, two or more trees that have welded themselves together, so that the bark has completely obliterated their fusion. One Scottish yew, with a girth of over 56 feet [17 m], is now known to be two trees joined in this fashion.

Yews can live for hundreds of years—some authorities say for thousands. Many old British yews are the sole survivors of medieval villages, around which new settlements have developed.

The mature seeds of the yew are covered by a bright-red, soft, cup-shaped membrane known as an aril. But these seeds, like the tree’s needles and bark, are poisonous and can be fatal to livestock allowed to graze nearby. At one time it was believed that a house decorated with yew would lead to a death in the family.

Yew wood is fine-grained, somewhat like mahogany. Its heartwood has an orange-red color and makes strong furniture. Because of its tough, elastic property, it was used in the Middle Ages to make longbows, which English archers employed so skillfully in warfare.

In Britain and also in parts of Normandy once ruled by England, yew trees are a common sight in ancient churchyards. One churchyard in England boasts 99 yews, but such a number is exceptional. Yews were usually planted in twos, one at the lych-gate—the funeral entrance to the churchyard—and the other near the church door. Today, two lines of trimmed Irish yews sometimes mark this pathway, with additional yews planted next to raised tombs or graves.

However, the supposed immortality of the soul is a pagan Greek doctrine associated with the teachings of Plato. Resurrection of the dead to everlasting life on earth will be God’s gift to mankind at a time when death has been done away with.—John 5:28, 29; Revelation 21:4.

[Picture on page 31]

A thousand-year-old yew in St. Andrew’s churchyard, Totteridge, Hertfordshire

[Pictures on page 31]

Right: Colorful arils—but poisonous seeds

Far right: Trimmed Irish yews in St. Lawrence’s churchyard, Little Stanmore, Middlesex