Norway: Burials (Begravelse)
Begravelse was the term used for the traditions and ceremonies associated with a person’s death and burial. It is interesting to surmise what these entailed by looking at the changes in the laws over the years. The extensive liturgy and ceremonies were trimmed down and many of the old customs were done away with after the reformation.
The church ordinance of June 14, 1539 and its explanations of May 12, 1555 and November 21, 1576 help us understand some of these customs and traditions.
Soul Ringing (Sjeleringing): The pracitec of ringing the church bells as soon as the person was dead to send the deceased’s soul into heaven was forbidden. However, this was practice was continued in some places on the west coast of Norway until the 1950s.
Wake (Likvake): The wake, or the watching over the deceased, most likely began as a somber affair. But when food and drinks were served it turned into a party with dancing. There were attempts to get rid of this practice as early as 1607 and throughout the 1600s.
Toast (Gravøl): This was a toast to the deceased. The old Norwegian word for this was sjon. The custom was to drink (or offer a toast) to the happiness and success of the deceased at the time of burial which coincided with the regulation to have the burial seven days after the death. The number of days between death and burial was changed from seven to five in 1559 and 1604.
Over the course of the 1600s to 1700s there were several decisions to limit the excesses in the burial customs.
The church made a distinction between ceremonious mass and low mass burials. With the ceremonious burial there could be a funeral procession, bell ringing, singing of psalms, casting earth on the coffin, and a sermon. The low mass was done in total silence and was a punishment for law breakers and suicide.
In the ceremonial burial there was a procession from the residence of the deceased to the church (likfølge). The church bells rang while the body was carried to the grave. They were not ringing for the dead but to awaken the living. The only part the priest had in the burial was on the day of the burial. The minimum he could do was to perform the church rites at the graveside which is called a Committal Service. Literally the translation means casting earth on the deceased’s coffin. After the grave was again covered, the priest could give a short sermon before everyone offered The Lord’s Prayer. During the priest’s talk (liktake) an obituary (also called a testament) could be read. Sometimes the talk could be a special document especially in the 1600s. In the towns the students sing during the burial process. This was an important source of revenue for the school. It was obligatory to pay (likpenger) to the church and the church wardens, while the payment of money (begravelsepenger) to the priest was honorary.
The most attractive place for the grave was under the floor in the church, but in 1805 this was outlawed for sanitation purposes. The best place in the graveyard was nearest the church. The poor people were buried on the outer fringes near the walls. People would bury their own dead without notifying the priest. The directive to have the priest involved in the burial was ignored and was repeated in 1751, 1754, and in 1800.
As the churchyards were too small in the towns it was necessary to create an assistant church yard away from the church. This was done also for hygiene. In the first half of the 1800s permission was given to have private burial sites on the farms.
1. ”Norsk Historisk Leksikon: Kulture og samfunn ca. 1500-ca. 1800”, 2nd ed., by Steinar Imsen and Harald Winge, Cappelen Akademisk Forlag, as, Oslo 1999. FHL Book Nr. Ref 948.1 H26i.