There are many theories to account for the ancient practice of planting churchyards and cemeteries with yew trees. Some authorities ascribe it to the adoption of ancient funeral rites; others to the prosaic notion of keeping the wind off the church; others, again, to the warlike need of bows and arrows--yew being especially serviceable. A large body of writers believe the use of the yew was symbolic--it typified by its unchanging verdure the doctrine of the resurrection. A few cynically assert that yews, being gloomy and poisonous, are rightly used for churchyard decoration; and there are not wanting writers who see in the practice a tribute to the superstitious regard men have always paid to trees. We may examine one or two of these suggestions, although no definite conclusion may be possible. We know that the ancient Britons planted yews near their temples long before Christianity was introduced into England, and this would suggest a custom on the island not necessarily Roman or Christian. A writer in The Gentleman's Magazine (1781) says:--
"We read in the Antiquities of Greece and Rome that the branches of the cypress and yew were the usual signals to denote a house in mourning. Now, sir, as Death was a deity among the antients (the daughter of Sleep and Night), and was by them represented in the same manner, with the addition only of a long robe embroidered with stars, I think we may fairly conclude that the custom of planting the yew in churchyards took its rise from Pagan superstition, and that it is as old as the conquest of Britain by Julius Caesar."
Gough, in the Introduction to his second volume of Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain, speaking of the signs of death in houses among the ancients, notices branches of pine and cypress, on the authority of Euripides, Hecuba, 191, 192 Suet. Aug. 101; AEn. xi. 31. He says in a note, "Will it be thought a far-fetcht conjecture that yew-trees in churchyards supply the place of cypress round tombs, where Ovid, Trist. III. xiii. 21, says they were placed?"
Far-fetched or not, the evidence is too slight to enable us to say confidently that the use of the yew comes to us from Pagan times.
Barrington, in his Observations on the Statutes, says "that trees in a churchyard were often planted to skreen the church from the wind; that, low as churches were built at this time, the thick foliage of the yew answered this purpose better than any other tree. I have been informed, accordingly, that the yew-trees in the churchyard of Gyffin, near Conway, having been lately felled, the roof of the church hath suffered excessively."
This sounds like a purely private opinion, and may be dismissed without further argument. There is a good deal to be said for the growing of yews to make bows. Sir Henry Ellis remarks that Shakespeare in Richard II. speaks of the double fatal yew because the leaves of the yew are poison, and the wood is employed for instruments of death. On this Stevens observes, that "from some of the ancient statutes it appears that every Englishman, while archery was practised, was obliged to keep in his house either a bow of yew or some other wood. It should seem, therefore, that yews were not only planted in churchyards to defend the churches from the wind, but on account of their use in making bows; while by the benefit of being secured in inclosed places, their poisonous quality was kept from doing mischief to cattle."
The difficulty of this otherwise reasonable conjecture is seen in the question: Are not all plantation grounds fenced from cattle? And why are there no more than two yew trees in each churchyard if bow wood was so necessary?
Sir Thomas Browne, in his Hydriotaphia Urne-buriall, tell us, that among the ancients, "the funerall pyre consisted of sweet fuell, cypresse, firre, larix, YEWE, and trees perpetually verdant." And he asks, or rather observes, "Whether the planting of yewe in churchyards holds its original from ancient funerall rites, or as an embleme of resurrection from its perpetual verdure, may also admit conjecture."
Yes, it admits of conjecture, and in all likelihood man's choice of the yew for funeral associations was determined by its appearance, its longevity, its utility in supplying material for weapons, and its need of segregation on account of its poisonous qualities; in fact, nearly all the suggested facts seem to have played some part in establishing the yew tree where we mostly find it.