Significance of Burial Customs in Old Scandinavian Culture

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In the Scandinavian culture from the Bronze Age to the Viking Age, people of the old heathen beliefs performed various forms of burial customs; these include passage graves, cremation burials with or without cremation remains of the pyre, inhumations in pits with or without coffins or in wooden chambers and boat burials. But after the conversion to Christianity (from the end of the 10th century onward), these varying burial customs disappeared and got unified into inhumations in consecrated grounds (Pulsiano and Wolf; Graves). Old Norse literature and archeology unveils these forgotten rituals. Written sources, however, could not give a thorough picture of ancient concepts since most were recorded by Christians at least 200 years after the Christianization and were discovered in fragments. The interpretation of excavated Viking graves was also problematic due to religious ambivalence from pagandom to Christianity even though many of the archeological findings were from the Viking Age (Pulsiano and Wolf; Burial Mounds and Burial Practices). Nonetheless, the burial customs present the modern world with the important aspects of the perception of reverence for ancestors, life after death, and social structure in the old Scandinavian culture.

Scandinavians believed that there were innumerable spirits who had influence on their lives and so they had to ¡°behave properly, honour the gods and other supernatural beings and give them their due¡± (Roesdahl 152). In order to maintain contacts with their ancestors and receive protections from them, people often located the graves nearby the villages (Roesdahl 157). Therefore, as they met their fates of death, the dead of the families were treated with great reverence. The erection of the massive structures of dolmen and passage graves or barrow burials, where the enormous work of remained family must had been necessary, confirmed the veneration the living held for the ancestors (Simek 48). Likewise, the funeral ¡®feasts¡¯ took place ¡°with a large company of men¡± and ¡°with the greatest honour¡± (Johnston 18).

This aspect of respect given to the dead established a close relation of fire with the burial customs. From the excavated burial places like Birka, many indications of cremation were found. Old Norse literature also proved the connection as it appeared very frequently. According to Ynglinga Saga, Odin, the All-father god, ordained the burial rites that ¡°all the dead were to be burned on a pyre together with their possessions¡± (Sturluson, ¡°Heimskringla¡± 11-12). Odin himself was burned after his death. It is said that human is a combination of body and soul, and as fire burns out the body, it purifies and frees the soul (Class discussion). By this procedure, the living are helping the dead to be liberated from the living world and go to Other World. As a result of Roman and later Christian influence, the ritual meaning of fire was disregarded and inhumation began to spread out. Although cremation was the dominant burial custom with Odin¡¯s order, Freyr was buried in a burial mound at Uppsala secretly. When the Swedes knew of his death three years later, good harvests and peace still prevailed; so they did not cremate him, believing his existence brought about the fortune (Sturluson, ¡°Heimskringla¡± 14). As inhumation burial became prevalent, Scandinavians considered physical remains to be deferential. So in Ynglinga Saga, King Ottar¡¯s death is portrayed as dishonor; ¡°the Danes laid his corpse upon a hill to let the beasts and the birds devour it, and made a crow of wood and sent it to Sweden with the words that their King Ottar was of no more value than that¡± (Sturluson, ¡°Heimskringla¡± 31-32). The changes in burial customs continued, but great reverence expressed by the living to the dead remained constant in all forms, whether the bodies were burnt or not. For the Norse, death meant the start of a new journey beyond life instead of the absolute end. They believed,...
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