In Wales, the tradition of burying the Dead with their feet facing East was probably more prevalent than anywhere else in the world.
People who live in remote districts would often proclaim to know the “moods of the mountains” around them, and many superstitions were based on these.
The moods of the mountains placed specific meaning to the wind, and a cold East wind would be seen to be a sorrowful sign. Referred to in old Welsh as “Gwynt traed y meirw” which means “wind of the dead men’s feet”, the superstition refers to the wind which comes from the direction of which the feet of the dead point. In Wales people were traditionally buried with their feet pointing to the East.
Many women especially would dread the East wind, and in Anglesey, they would stay indoors when the wind blew from that direction. The reason for this fear of the wind is unclear. However, we might assume it is for a similar reason as to why there are many superstitions and folklore tales of death returning to claim another victim. Some other related beliefs we can compare this to include;
the corpse should always leave home feet first or else the corpse would be looking back and calling for someone to follow him in death.
It is unlucky to go ahead of the funeral procession – death will follow if you do.
Coins would be placed over the eyes of the corpse to keep them from opening. If they remained open, they believed the body would be looking for a follower, and another death will occur.
There are many suggestions as to the reason why people were buried in this way. Most people attach it to the Christian symbolism because the east is the direction of Jerusalem and before the second coming the dead will be resurrected on Judgement Day and so must be facing Christ when this happens.
Ordained priests would be buried the opposite way with their feet facing West so that they would be facing their flock when the dead rise. If a person were deemed to be a sinner – for example, hanged criminals or suicide victims they would also be deliberately buried with their heads facing North or upside down as they incurred a debt on society to be paid on Judgement day.
The custom may well pre-date Christianity however because the Pagans buried their dead to face the rising sun and the line of the suns path is east to west. Pagans faced the East in prayer and constructed their temples facing East to meet the rising Sun. In rural parts of England, it was the custom in ancient times to remark at the funeral service:
"The dead may go wi’ the sun."
Sir Walter Raleigh referred to this superstition when he stood on the scaffold and was about to be executed. After forgiving his executioner, there was a discussion as to the way he should face, some saying he should face the east. Raleigh then remarked:
"So the heart be straight it is no matter which way the head lieth."
Not all cemeteries will be found to honor this tradition as many have merely had to maximize the use of the land in any way they can. In 2012 a news report (link) said that some concerned residents in Aberystwyth approached their local councilor about their concerns that bodies were being buried facing the wrong direction in a town cemetery.
It should be noted that there are many other traditions for the positioning of the dead which varies across religions and cultures. For example, in Islam, the dead are buried in the supine position facing Mecca.