At this time of the year around Halloween or Samhain, it's traditional to reflect on the ancestors beyond the veil.
Yew trees (taxus baccata) are an evergreen conifer which bears red berries in the middle of winter, they are found all over Europe growing wild and they are noticeably found in churchyards across the UK and Ireland. They are very slow growing and some are thought to be over a thousand years old. They have in the last 30 years or so been rediscovered as the tree which holds a central role in the mythology of Paganism.
If you visit any church yards in England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland you will notice that most of them have an ancient Yew Tree in the cemetery. The wardens and priests don't seem to know the reasons why all their churches have Yew trees, they say its just traditional, but they don't really know why. Recently the reason seems to have been remembered.
Botanists have come to realise that Yew trees can live an extraordinarily long time. Many of the ancient Yew trees you will find in Churchyards can be up to 1000 years old and some of them may be even much older than that. There are problems accurately dating the age of yew trees. They grow incredibly slowly. Church records show that on average the girth of these trees increases only by about 0.2 inches every year. This is on a tree that can often have a girth of over 20 feet! They also become hollow fairly early in their life, making ring counting an impossibility. It is known that maybe hundreds of years after the tree becomes hollow, it has the ability to send an internal shoot down into the hollow cavity and re-roots itself. This shoot becomes another trunk within the hollow. In effect, starting again. This brings the prospect of an almost eternal tree, a tree that could just keep regenerating.
A yew tree at Stanmer Park, Brighton, with an internal rooted shoot
Some years ago I started driving around the country looking at ancient Yew trees and I was perplexed as to why the early Christians planted this tree in their churchyards, and had then forgotten why. As time went by and the incredible age of these trees became more apparent, an answer started to appear; Maybe the trees were on these spots before the churches!
Yews are dark and mysterious and unlike any other native tree. They are evergreen and in the depth of winter when all else is dead they bear their fruit. The flesh of this berry is sweet, but the pip is poisonous.Their branches spread out low creating cathedral like structures. On top of this they sometimes 'bleed' a red blood like sap. The bark is reminiscent of gnarled and twisted flesh. You can see limbs and faces in the trunks. Yew is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers grow on separate trees! These are visible in March and April. There is some speculation that the pollen of Yews may even be slightly hallucinogenic.
When you put all this together; their incredible age, their ability to regenerate perhaps endlessly, bear fruit in mid winter winter and bleed a blood like sap you can see why they may have taken on the mythological role of a sacred tree representing death and rebirth. It's no great feat of imagination to think that our ancestors may have worshiped these trees and maybe even have left their dead beneath them. For our ancestors, perhaps the dead remained alive within the Eternal tree of life.
The trees may have been planted by our ancient pagan ancestors, to mark their sacred spots and burial grounds or they may have chosen specific trees ones to worship and these became sacred places. When the Christians arrived and began their conversion to Christianity they may have built their churches on the local sacred sites. The Christians in turn, carried on the tradition of burying their dead on these sacred sites. This may explain why in every old church you go to you will find a yew tree... and also why the priests don't know why they are there.
Maybe a lot of the stories of witches dancing around graveyards were just people doing what they had always done, worshiping their Tree of Life and communing with the spirits of their ancestors, it was just that now, a church and graveyard had been built on their sacred site.
For more information read the book 'The Sacred Yew'.