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

In this post, we take a look at the layout of the Norwegian farm and its surroundings - and how the land and its resources were utilised.
In this selection of beautiful hand-coloured lantern slides from around 1900, we visit the city of Bergen - and other west coast destinations. Enjoy!
In the coastal districts of the old Norway, a strandsitter was a beach dweller - who rented a small piece of land - but owned the house he built on it. His livelihood was usually connected to the sea.
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.
Are you looking for a Norwegian-to-English dictionary that includes old-fashioned words and dialect words? Then Einar Haugen’s book is your best pick.
To make sure he could tide the animals over the long and cold winter, the historical Norwegian farmer utilised all available resources.
With this old photograph in my hand I have set myself a task: how much information can I find in Norwegian online archives based on what the photo tells me?
For the old Norwegians, making butter was simply a way of preserving the fresh summer milk - turning it into a type of food that could be stored.
With a growing population and public sector, Norway pushed through significant reforms in several areas: public structure and organisation, welfare, health care, tax, policing, public services, and more.
Carl Fredrik Sundt-Hansen created this fascinating oil painting in 1904. It is like a window leading into the house of history. If only we could climb through.
Langfjordbotn - in Norway’s northernmost region Finnmark - was the birthplace of Oluf Røde, born in 1889.
Watch some lovely vintage photos of mankinds's many good friends.
The word ski comes from the Old Norse language, with the meaning cleft wood. The old Norwegians were master hunters, and have been skiing for over 5000 years.
Kløvhest is a Norwegian noun that means packhorse. Well into our own time, the Norwegians used horses to help transport goods through a challenging landscape.
Like all buildings on the old Norwegian farm, the stabbur had a clear purpose: it was a building designed for the storage of food.
Myrmelk is a Norwegian noun that means milk conserved in a container buried in a mountain peat bog, left there for herders or others to drink at a later stage.
This beautiful oil painting by Johan Christian Dahl says a lot about generations of Norwegians - and the landscape and the skills they knew.
17 May 1814 is regarded as the birth of the modern-day Norwegian state. But it took almost another hundred years before the Norwegians could declare complete independence.
In this video-collection of historical photos, we reminisce about the dairy cow on the old Norwegian farm. We recommend that you watch with the sound on. Enjoy!
The most significant sections of Norwegian productive soil can be found in the counties of Trøndelag, Hedmark, Oppland and Rogaland.
In this video-collection of historical photos, we visit the west coast of Norway and the region of Sogn og Fjordane. We recommend that you watch with the sound on. Enjoy!

Follow us on social media

Norwegian history