In Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the grim proletarian phrase churchyard luck denoted the ‘good fortune’ which the parents of a large, poor family experienced by the death of one or more of their children.
—Cf. also ‘churchyard cough’: meaning and origin.
These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase churchyard luck that I have found:
1-: From The Lincoln, Rutland, and Stamford Mercury (Stamford, Lincolnshire, England) of Friday 14th March 1873:
Burial Clubs.—On Sunday evening last Dr. Burgess called the attention of a very large congregation at St. Andrew’s church to the West Auckland murders, and the woman under sentence of death in Durham gaol. His text was, “The wages of sin is death.” From the fact that the wretched woman had poisoned her husband and children in order to obtain the sums insured for their burial, the preacher took occasion to guard his hearers against the temptation held out to poor and unprincipled persons with large families to be careless of the health of their children, if nothing worse resulted. There was a common expression, he said, of “churchyard luck” used of those who had buried some of their children, which spoke volumes. He also reprehended the common error of having expensive funerals; a custom which made the poorest classes so anxious to provide, by insurance, against such casualties.
2-: From Angling. Early Trout Fishing in Devon, by ‘Pelagius’, published in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England) of Saturday 16th March 1878:
At the end of the meadow Daniels, one of those small freeholders so common in Devon, who farm their ten or twelve acres, and fare worse than the ordinary labourer in consequence, met me. “What sport, zur?” he says. “I were down along yere last week, and the fish was as thick in the stickles as a horgin bed.” i.e., as a bed of penny royal, a herb much used by the poorer Devon swains wherewith to make tea.
“I have not done amiss. See here. How is the old dumman? Take her these three fish from me, as I shall not get up to the farm to-day.”
“Thankee, zur. They’ll be welcom, for the children has been most a gone with scarlatina. I opes they’ll zune be well agin. I can better avoard to keep ’em than to berry ’em; vunerals be sich a price. But the missus zays her family don’t niver have much churchyard luck”—i.e., do not lose many relatives.
3-: From Truth (London, England) of Thursday 24th August 1882:
“How many children have you now?” a lady asked an old servant, the other day. “Fourteen,” he replied. “A large family, indeed.” “Yes, ma’am,” said the philosophic retainer; “but you see I’m not like many of my neighbours; I’ve never had any churchyard luck with my children—they all lived.”
(The paragraph originally published in Truth on 24th August 1882 was reprinted in several British newspapers, as well as in several U.S. newspapers—first in the Boston Evening Journal (Boston, Massachusetts) of Wednesday 6th September 1882.)
4-: From Paulie, by Mary Deane, published in Temple Bar. A London Magazine for Town and Country Readers (London: Richard Bentley and Son) of August 1893:
This was the dwelling of John Golding, carpenter.
No one had ever ventured to begin counting his children, but general rumour ascribed twenty, or thereabouts to him. He himself was so used to count them by “mouths” that when they went out into the world they dropped out of the reckoning—they were as last year’s brood to a sparrow. Perhaps their mother counted them by boots, as she had to buy those articles on market day. In a moment of expansion she had been heard to lament that she had had no “churchyard luck.” Other folk buried their three, or seven, but hers persisted in thriving.
5-: From the account of a meeting of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, published in The Evening Star (Ipswich, Suffolk, England) of Friday 16th March 1894:
The Chairman remarked […] it was our boast that every Englishman’s house was his castle. He thought we ought to add to that, “Every child’s home should be his castle also.” Every child had a right to protection, and should not be abandoned to the tender mercies of those who were worse than demons. This question of protection stretched a long way. For instance, there was another question closely allied to it, which ought to be dealt with, namely, that of infant insurance. All knew, or had heard, of the terrible mortality among children who were insured. Among certain classes of the population there was a callousness of disposition which was appalling, born, it might be, in the first instance, of want and privation. Many of those present had doubtless heard of what was called “churchyard luck.” In the case of insured children he feared “churchyard luck” prevailed to a very large extant, and this was a matter which demanded the urgent attention of the Legislature.
6-: From the column Here, There, and Everywhere, published in The Westminster Gazette (London, England) of Monday 29th April 1901:
“Some of your readers,” writes a clerical correspondent, “may be interested to know that it is not only in Trinidad that mothers have odd ways of expressing their feelings about the increase of their family. Some three or four years ago, in a village not fifty miles from London, the wife of a labouring man had recently presented her already overburdened lord and master with another child. A visitor, on hearing the news, asked, ‘Well, Mrs. Jones, how many does that make?’ The answer was: ‘Sixteen, sir, and no churchyard luck!’ I have not had the heart to inquire whether since then she has added to the number, or whether she has at last had ‘churchyard luck,’ as she called it.”
(The paragraph originally published in The Westminster Gazette on 29th April 1901 was reprinted in several British newspapers, as well as in several U.S. newspapers—first in The Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington) of Saturday 25th May 1901.)