Graveyard inequality | once a pauper – always a pauper | Norway

It is said that all people are equal in Heaven. But the historical churchyard shows us that no such equality applied here on Earth.
LA Dahlmann | talk NORWAY
The Urnes stave church and its graveyard - in Luster, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway. | © rpbmedia - stock.adobe.com.
The Urnes stave church and its graveyard - in Luster, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway. | Photo: © rpbmedia - stock.adobe.com.

Christianity came with the Viking kings

In Scandinavia, Christianity came with the Viking kings, around the turn of the second millennium AD. 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.

Consecrated ground

The new faith also brought with it the mandatory graveyard and its consecrated ground. The old burial plots located by the ancestral homes – or in a place dedicated to the old gods – were a thing of the past. The dearly departed no longer belonged to the long line of family – ætten – but to God and her kingdom.

But not for everyone

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, such lost souls had to be buried at the high-water mark – ved flomålet – where the sea meets the green turf. In the inland communities, and later everywhere, such graves were placed outside the graveyard fence.

The old graveyard is a map of class distinction

The early laws clearly mapped out where each social layer had its place. The higher up you were on the social ladder, the closer your grave was to the church-walls. This is a practice that survived well into our own time. A prominent position was of course also given to the church’s own men.

First came the king’s noblemen

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. There, by the fence, they also buried the bodies of unknown people washed ashore by the ocean.

Paid a fee to get the best plot

The prominent families often used the same grave-plot 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 church. 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 – nøddåp or hjemmedåp. During the Catholic period, this could be performed by anyone with the right intent, even by a non-Christian person. Through this emergency baptism, the baby’s soul was saved, and it was allowed its eternal rest in holy soil. In Norway, the practice of burying people outside the graveyard’s fence was not changed by law until 1897.

Look for clues

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.

Main source: «Vårt møte med døden» by Einar Hovdhaugen – Det Norske Samlaget 1981.

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