The Urnes stave church and its graveyard - in Luster, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway. | © rpbmedia -

The Urnes stave church and its graveyard - in Luster, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway. | © rpbmedia -

The old Norwegian cemetery | Once and always a pauper

It has been said that all people are equal in Heaven, but the historical churchyard shows us that no such equality applied here on Earth.
By LA Dahlmann | The Evergreen Post


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Christianity and the Viking kings

In Scandinavia, Christianity came with the Viking kings, around AD 1000.

The new religion brought with it churches and new customs and rituals. Saying no to the new ways was not an option, not if you valued your life.

The new faith also introduced the mandatory churchyard, and its consecrated ground.

Previously, the burial plots had been placed close to the ancestral homes – or in places dedicated to the old gods.

With the new religion, the dead no longer belonged to their family or clan – ætten – but to the Christian God.

No room for evil-doers

Evil-doers, betrayers of the king, murderers, peace-breakers, thieves, and those who committed suicide, were all denied access to both the church and the churchyard, even in death.

According to the old west-Norwegian Gulating law, the gravediggers had to bury such people by the high-water mark along the coastline – ved flomålet – where the sea meets the green turf.

In the inland communities, and later everywhere, the outcasts’ graves were placed outside the graveyard’s fence. They did not belong in consecrated ground, or the kingdom of God.

The old graveyard is a map of class distinction

The early laws also clearly mapped out where each social layer had its place within the graveyard’s perimeter: the higher up on the social ladder, the closer to the church’s walls. This is a practice that survived well into our own time.

The church’s own men, of course, also gave themselves a prominent location.

The Gulating law listed this specific burial hierarchy:

  • Closest to the church came the graves of the king’s noblemen and their families.
  • Next, came the self-owning farmers, and the tenant farmers.
  • Then, the poor, and the freed slaves.
  • And finally, just inside the graveyard’s fence, the slaves – treller – and the bodies of strangers washed ashore by the ocean.

The prominent families often used the same graves for centuries, and sometimes paid a fee to get the best spot.

During parts of history, some high-ranking people were also buried inside the churches. But this was not as common in Norway, as it was in other parts of the world.

Unbaptised children and heretics

Unbaptised children and non-believers were also buried outside the graveyard’s fence.

In old birth records, we see that it was quite common to perform so-called emergency home baptisms, if the child was stillborn or died before it could be brought before a priest – nøddåp or hjemmedåp.

During the Catholic period – prior to the reformation in AD 1537 – these emergency baptisms could be performed by anyone with the right intent, even by a non-Christian person.

Through this emergency baptism, the baptiser saved the baby’s soul, allowing it to rest in consecrated ground.

In Norway, the lawmakers did not formally change the practice of burying people outside the graveyard’s fence until 1897.

Look for signs

The next time that you visit an old Norwegian graveyard, look for signs of the old class distinctions. And when you walk its perimeter, think of the people who were buried outside the old stone fence; in unmarked graves that we can no longer see.

Source: Hovdhaugen, Einar. Vårt møte med døden. Det Norske Samlaget 1981. | EGP.00014

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Norwegian folk instruments | The birch trumpet


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