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.

Our most recent posts

My Norwegian heritage

Some claim that porridge is the oldest hot dish in the Norwegian diet. Was it to our ancestors what bread is to the modern family of today?
On the historical Norwegian farm, winter feed for the domesticated animals was a precious resource. Sometimes it was harvested and temporarily stored far away from the farm.
The Norwegian farm horse was a reliable and powerful companion. But by the late 1960s, they were almost all gone. Enjoy this video-collection of wonderful vintage photographs.
The first Norwegian Buhund breed-standard came in 1926, based on a dog that had evolved, lived, and worked with the Norwegians since time immemorial.
Neither the great Atlantic Ocean nor time or social conventions could separate a love that was meant to be.
As far as palaces go, the main royal residence in Oslo is a modestly sized building. Here we see it from an unusual angle, painted by the architect himself.
In Norway, the first traces of iron date back to 400-300 BC. The country has significant iron resources, and making tools and weapons from this new metal was a significant step forward.
Magne Løvstuen and his family adopted this moose calf after saving it from drowning in Lake Mjøsa.
A loved child goes by many names, says a Norwegian expression. This certainly applies to the country Norway. But what does the name really mean?
In my childhood, life was simple. And the small joys of Christmas lifted our spirits - and delivered us safely into the new year.
In 1935, Aslaug Engnæs published a guidance book on how to milk the cow.
In the year AD 1537, King Christian 3 of Denmark-Norway embraced the Lutheran Reformation, and the Norwegians went from being Catholics to Protestants. The king confiscated the Catholic Church’s considerable wealth, a welcomed addition to the royal coffers. Norway more or less ceased to exist as a sovereign state and became a province under Denmark.
A primstav is an old wooden calendar-stick, marking the days of the year and important events. It splits the year into two equal halves: summer and winter.
Uff da! is a Norwegian interjection, often used to express sympathy. For example when a child falls over: Uff da! Slo du deg? - meaning Poor you! Did you hurt yourself?
In Scandinavia, agriculture first appeared in the Stone age – around 2400 BC. The early farmers cleared their land by using simple tools and fire.
Here is a collection of some wonderful vintage photos, showing a handful of Norwegians and their lives.
Here are 12 historical photos representing the fascinating Sami culture - with deep roots in the Norwegian and Nordic landscape.
From the early 1800s and well into the 1900s, Norway was a significant exporter of natural ice. But how did they prevent the ice from melting?
In the olden days, people dressed up warmly and got out onto the fjord or lake to catch their Sunday dinner. Enjoy!
Oslo is the capital city of Norway. It was founded in AD 1048 by the Viking king Harald Hardråde. Historically, the city is also known as Christiania or Kristiania.
For many, it may come as a surprise that the history of rose painting and its place in Norwegian folk art is not as old as one might think.

Follow us on social media

Norwegian history