The travel writer Arthur Harwood Brierley was not exactly shy of hyperbole when in 1897 he wrote a lengthy report on his visits to the upper-Swaledale village of Muker. “Grinton and Muker funerals have always been known as the weirdest performances imaginable,” was one of the more extreme utterances in one of his articles that appeared in the Leeds Mercury newspaper.
During one visit to Muker, and while ensconced at the Queen’s Head Inn with his friend from York, T P Cooper, he was clearly aghast to learn of the local funeral customs. “When snow lies deep on the ground, it is no easy matter to get a coffin far out from the hills to the parish churchyard,” he wrote, “[so] it is dragged on a hay or coal sledge, but not without many bumps and bruises.”
Brierley noted that the village had recently acquired a proper hearse though he doubted it would be readily accepted. “Naturally we may expect some prejudice against this four-wheeler, as a mad innovation to thrust aside the cart or sledge, as the coffin [had] thrust aside the wicker basket,” he commented.
His host at the Queen’s Head, who was not named in the article but must have been William Raw, 59, pointed out a collection of mugs at the inn, which he said had been traditionally used for ‘arvills’. This is a nearly-lost dialect word for a funeral party at which it was expected that the heirs of the deceased would not mourn but would celebrate their inheritance. The word has just about survived in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors in the phrase ‘arval-bread’, also known as ‘funeral biscuit’, a patterned biscuit that some old dales-folk can recall being given out to mourners.
Arvill, arval or arvel is derived from Old Norse words erfð meaning inheritance and öl meaning ale. In an English translation of the Icelandic Njal’s Saga, the great folklorist Sir George Webbe Dasent (1817–1896) described the feast of arvel (heir ale) as “a time when heirs drank themselves into their fathers’ land and goods, there was great mirth and jollity, and much eating and hard drinking of mead and fresh-brewed ale.”
As the Muker publican William Raw confirmed in 1897: “Ay… they didn’t mourn at arvills. They ate, drank, and made merry as soon as the funeral was over.” But even in his time he was speaking of it as a tradition of the past. It is perhaps not surprising that the impact of Victorian English reserve, even in the dales, tempered the meaning over time to come to mean something more akin to respectful tea and biscuits.
Brierley’s report on Muker church and the village’s funeral practices can be read in full here: Muker in 1897. Begin at the sub-heading PART 2 to read this latest part of a planned full transcription of his article.
 Joseph Wright, English Dialect Dictionary vol. 1 (Oxford, 1905), p. 77
 Rev J C Atkinson, Forty years in a moorland parish (1891, popular edition Otley, 1987), pp.226-8.