The Concept of Death in Norway
Similar to many other cultures, Norway has developed several concepts connected with the concept of death. Death is one of the most critical experiences in human life. The majority of people have experienced loss of their close relatives or friends, and it could not help but leave imprint in the collective psychic of a society. The experiences of loss that follow the death of a person have always induced varied reactions from humans. An individual encounters feelings of helplessness, sadness, and sorrow that can hardly be recovered. A period of grieving resulting from death experience strongly influences the society and makes it develop beliefs, cultural systems and practices revolving around the concept of death. In course of the time, Norwegian communities have elaborated attitudes, customs, and ideas connected with the death and process of dying which have affected the way the community lives. These ideas and practices have also been influenced by external beliefs and traditions, such as Christian traditions, which have had a strong impact on many cultures of the world.
Traditional burial practices have changed over a long period of time, and many of them have been dropped and forgotten, while the others were added. The church is known to have had a strong influence on these changes. After the Lutheran reform changes taken place in 1539, Norwegian funeral practices were gradually altered (Jarlert, 2012).
Bell ringing is one of the popular funeral practices. It involved clappering the church bell after a person’s death. The practice was believed to send the deceased’s soul to heaven. Although the practice gradually ceazed to exist, it was still present at the beginning of the 20th century. Amundson (2004) notes that the sounds of horse hooves and ringing of the bell every 15 seconds dominated funeral process in the 1900s. The bells informed people of the procession and invited them to the funeral. All the deceased irrespective of their status in the society received equal treatment. In the absence of newspapers and radio, bell ringing was a critical way of communicating. Today, bell still could be rung at some funerals. During the discussions of the burial arrangements with the undertaker, they hung a huge black bow on the deceased’s family house main door. The bow announces the death and informs of the pending burial. The message is usually spread fast and the undertaker prepares the body for the view of the mourners.
Burial Feasts and the Wake
Burial feasts commonly mark Norwegian funerals. Feasts and toasting originated from the Viking traditions and survived even after the introduction of Christianity in Norway. According to McDonald & Somerville (2014), all the mourners feasted, drank, and proposed toasts to the dead. Toasting normally happened on the burial day which previously was performed on the seventh day. In the early 20th century, the traditions of the burial day are known to have been different. Nevertheless, on average, three days and two nights after the death had to pass before the body could be buried. Sometimes the body stayed for an extended period, as the family or neighbors waited for relatives from distant places to come, especially those contacted via telegram. In most cases, the undertaker brought the deceased back home in a coffin and placed it in the front room for viewers. Several members of the family would watch over the body at night and this led to the term ‘wake’ (Likvake). Today, funeral directors have taken a dominant role over the undertakers (International Business Publications, 2012).
The Role of the Priest
In the early times, the Church had a right to decide whether a funeral would be low profile or ceremonious. Low mass burials took place in silence as a way to punish those people who had committed suicides or broken the law. Suicide admonishing shaped the country’s negative perception of this practice. On the other hand, ceremonious burials involved procession, reading of psalms, ringing the bell, sermons, and casting earth to the coffin. Originally, the deceased’s burial place was under the church floor. Later, burials took place in churchyards, and despite private burials were common, they were officially permitted only in the 1800s. Priest was involved during the burial day, when he preached sermons and read prayers. Today the priests continue to perform these duties (Kaplan, Tangherlini & Lindow, 2012).
Other past practices and beliefs include Viking burials in boats, ancestor worship, afterlife concepts, helgafjell, hel, Valhalla, Folkvangr, use of poems, gravestones and motifs. A number of these practices and beliefs are still vibrant today. Norway is a multicultural society and thus the death, as well as dying attitudes and practices may exhibit variations from place to place. However, as has been noted earlier, Christian traditions took precedence after the Lutheran reforms of 1539.
Norwegians symbolically express themselves on the gravestones, where they mostly use Christian epitaphs and pictures. The ratio of Christian messages and secular pictures indicate that Norwegians are dominated by Christian attitudes, as in their works there are numerous references to biblical texts and figures. Most messages suggest postmortem reunion and beliefs in afterlife (Gustvavsson, 2012). Norwegians also combine religious stories with secular messages. For instance, a boat motif is often found alongside with religious messages and symbolizes a concept of life as a voyage. Figures of Jesus cast in bronze are also common on the tombstones. Motifs of anchor and flowers are spread as well: the gravestones may even take the shape of an anchor. There is also frequent use of obituaries in newsprints. Norwegians further adhere to the long-time tradition of visiting graveyards and examining gravestones before choosing one for their deceased.
Contemporary Rituals and Attitudes
Norwegians rarely visit graves of their deceased. They do not consider visiting graves important since they do not associate the memory of the dead person with their grave. Thus, taking care of graves does not imply attention to the deceased themselves. However, they believe in strong connection between the worldly and spiritual realms. As such, the deceased abode is not considered to be confined to the grave. However, Norwegians pay for cemetery care to look after the graves and even establish burial trusts to relinquish themselves from care and visits (Gustvavsson, 2012). The popularity of such trusts has lately increased.
Collective rituals and roadside memorial are also common. Norwegians conduct memorial and rituals at sites of fatal accidents. These sites become important and serve as a reminder of the significance of road safety. The mourners may place a decorated cross on the roadside to commemorate the dead. The roadside memorial is normally elaborate. Those in attendance observe moments of silence, give their testimonies, and place flowers, poems, and crosses at the spot. The events are mostly organized by youths who also announce them in newspapers.
In accordance with Protestant traditions, Norwegians are apprehensive of suicides (Gustvavsson, 2012). Nevertheless, they prove to be quite liberal in connection with assisted death or euthanasia. Substantial part of the Norwegian population does not find it incorrect to conduct euthanasia. However, Norwegian physicians have restrictive attitudes toward this practice.
At the moment, Norwegians have adopted the use of memorial websites for the bereavement of their deceased. The mourners post short and almost unemotional messages on these websites. Their representation embodies the Norwegian traditions of giving dark moments a brighter side (Gustavsson, 2013). They do not merely reject life’s black moments without giving critical thought the way their Swedish counterparts do. The memorial websites demonstrate critical human need to express emotions through words since it is not healthy to suppress emotions within one's thoughts. The websites allow the grieving to do it and share with friends and relatives, even when they are not close to each other to engage verbally.
In conclusion, Norway has developed a system of concepts connected with dying processes and the death itself. It should be noted that the Protestant principles have strongly dominated the Norwegian notions of death. Norwegians gradually discard some of the old practices such as bell ringing, toasting, the wake, and use of burial costumes. Nevertheless, the society still perceives the death as a passage to the afterlife. They hold burials and perform rituals for the dead.