‘churchyard cough’: meaning and origin

With allusion to the churchyard as the site of burial, the noun churchyard has been used attributively of something indicative of, or associated with, (impending) death.
—Cf. also churchyard luck.

► Something indicative of (impending) death: For example, the phrase churchyard skin occurs in an undated letter that one Fanny Parker wrote to the British courtesan Harriette Wilson (1786-1845)—as published in Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, written by herself (London: Printed and published by J. J. Stockdale, 1825):

Mr. Meyler himself, who ought to be the best judge, professes to be in remarkably good health, and he is known to ride very hard, in Leicestershire. But there is something so remarkably transparent about Meyler’s skin, it is, in fact, a church-yard-skin, like my own, I think, I hope I am mistaken too: for it would be hard to die, in the bloom of youth and beauty, beloved by every body, and with thirty thousand a year.

► Something associated with (impending) death: For example, the following is from Nonsense Poetry, an essay by the British political writer and essayist George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair – 1903-1950), first published in the Tribune (London, England) on Thursday 21st June 1945:

In many languages, it is said, there is no nonsense poetry, and there is not a great deal of it even in English. The bulk of it is in nursery rhymes and scraps of folk poetry, some of which may not have been strictly nonsensical at the start, but have become so because their original application has been forgotten. […]
[…]
[…] Some of these seemingly frivolous rhymes actually express a deeply pessimistic view of life, the churchyard wisdom of the peasant. For instance:
     Solomon Grundy,
     Born on Monday,
     Christened on Tuesday,
     Married on Wednesday,
     Took ill on Thursday,
     Worse on Friday,
     Died on Saturday,
     Buried on Sunday,
     And that was the end of Solomon Grundy.
which is a gloomy story, but remarkably similar to yours or mine.

 

CHURCHYARD COUGH

 

In particular, the noun churchyard has been used attributively in the phrase churchyard cough, denoting a bad cough indicative of impending death.

For example, in The vulgarities of speech corrected: with elegant expressions for provincial and vulgar English, Scots, and Irish; for the use of those who are unacquainted with grammar (London: Printed for F. C. Westley, 1829), “a church-yard cough” was corrected as “a deadly cough”.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase churchyard cough that I have found:

1-: From A New Dictionary French and English, With Another English and French; According to the Present Use, and Modern Orthography of the French. Inrich’d With New Words, Choice Phrases, and Apposite Proverbs; Digested Into a most Accurate Method; And Contrived For the Use both of English and Foreiners (London: Printed by Thomas Dawks […], 1677), by the Swiss author Guy Miège (1644-ca. 1718)—the French nouns toux and cimetière translate respectively as cough and cemetery:

The Church-yard cough, la toux du Cemetiere.

2-: From Phraseologia Generalis […] A Full, Large, and General Phrase Book; Comprehending, Whatsoever is Necessary and most Usefull, in all other Phraseological Books, (hitherto, here, Published;) and Methodically Digested; for the more speedy, and Prosperous Progress of Students, in their Humanity Studies (Cambridge: Printed by John Hayes […], 1681), by the Scottish grammarian and lexicographer William Robertson (fl. 1651-1685):

A consumption of the Lungs; Pthisis […]: A disease of the lungs when they are ulcerated and corrupted; A church yard Cough; the Phthisick or Tißick; q. d. morbus Phthisicus.

3– : From Dictionaire Royal, Anglois-François, et François-Anglois; Tiré des meilleurs Auteurs qui ont écrit dans ces deux Langues. Tome Second (À Amsterdam, Chez Pierre Humbert; À La Haye, Chez les Frères Van Dole & Isaac Vaillant – 1719), by the French-English lexicographer and journalist Abel Boyer (ca. 1667-1729)—une toux de renard qui mène au terrier translates as a fox’s cough that leads to the burrow:

Church-yard, Cimetiére.
A Church-yard-Cough, Une Toux de Renard qui mene au Terrier.

4– : From Pantheon Anecdotes, published in The London Magazine: Or, Gentleman’s Monthly Intelligencer (London, England) of October 1782:

Sir Oliver swore he existed but in Lady Caterwaul’s company, and appealed to all present for the truth of his affection; which they all confirmed with solemn oaths! The tea equipage was then served, the fiddles tuned, and Signor Bertoni at the harpsichord, Lady Catterwaul [sic] was teized to sing, and she got through “Non temen,” &c. as well a good church yard cough, and a tolerable astmatic wheeze would permit—the drawing room resounded with bravo’s, encore’s, &c.

5-: From The Telegraphe [sic] and Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland, USA) of Wednesday 18th June 1800:

In the church-yard of a village near Bridge-water, is the following curious Epitaph:—
          TO THE MEMORY OF
     KATE JONES, a wealthy spinster, ag’d fourscore,
          Who’d many aches, and fancy’d many more,
               Knelling her friends to th’ grave with church-yard cough;
          Long hung she on death’s nose, ’till one March morn
               There came a cold north-east, and blew her off,
          Leaving her Potticary quite forelorn.
               Obiit March 25, Ann. Dom. 1723.