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

Per O. Rød wrote the history of the Stornæve farm and its inhabitants back in 1968. Decades earlier, several children of Stornæve had emigrated to the US.
Like all buildings on the old Norwegian farm, the stabbur had a clear purpose: it was a building designed for the storage of food.
The old Norwegian farm needed hundreds of litres of water every single day: for food-making, cleaning, and human and animal consumption.
Skårfast is a Norwegian adjective that means that a person or an animal is stuck on a steep mountain- or cliff-side shelf, and in need of being rescued.
In my childhood, life was simple. And the small joys of Christmas lifted our spirits - and delivered us safely into the new year.
With the Bronze age came a new and important phase in human history and development: mankind learned how to make tools and other objects from a metal they called bronze.
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.
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?
The Stone age people were master hunters, fishers, and gatherers. The lived with the seasons and followed the prey.
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.
In the old farming society, nature dictated the flow of the working year. And farmworkers could only leave their jobs on 2 specific days during the year.
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.
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.
The Heddal stave church - stavkirke - is Norway's largest remaining building of its kind. It is a woodwork masterpiece, with a history that stretches back more than 800 years.
Do you know the name of Norway’s capital city? Test yourself, friends, and family in this 10 multiple-choice questions quiz vol. 1. See the correct answer below each photo.
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.
In olden Norway, the farm-animals were sent off to the mountains and forests all summer. With them came a herder to guard them, and a maid to turn their milk into cheese and butter.
The wild ocean world of Værøy in Lofoten, Norway, was the birthplace of Mimmi Benjaminsen – born in 1894. Here are some of her childhood memories.
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.
With the birth of the new Norwegian national state in 1814, came big ideas. And one of them was to establish better transportation systems.
Kantslått is a Norwegian noun that means (1) the grass that is cut along the edges of a field, a road, etc. or (2) the actual process of cutting this grass. Traditionally, the grass was used as animal fodder.

Follow us on social media

Norwegian history