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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

How to bury your mother-in-law

Your mother-in-law probably chased your tail during life. When she dies, do not think you are free at last. If you're looking for advice on how to ensure she doesn't haunt you anymore when she is dead, then this post is for you.

Here is a more than two-thousand-years-old suggestion in case you do not want any interference from her after her death. This advice comes from the terp dwellers (terps being artificial settlement mounds where Frisians were safe in flood times) of the region of Ostfriesland in Germany and the provinces of Friesland and Groningen in the Netherlands. After reading this post, you will tramp the soil carefully when you hike the Frisia Coast Trail. For sure, you will.

First of all, cremation isn't an option. Only three cremations have been found in the salt-marsh area of the Netherlands. The common practice for the ancient people (i.e. Late Iron Age) of the north on the Wadden Sea coast was to leave the body somewhere on the tidal marshlands for scavengers. Mainly, it was to be eaten by their own, many and very big dogs. Dogs acted as the intermediary between the present and the afterlife (Nieuwhof 2015). Just like their cousins, the wolf, who were associated with savagery and death (Smeyers 2023).

The ancient salt-marsh funeral rites are, in a way, similar to those of the Tibetans today, where vultures fulfil this role of releasing the spirit from the body. Just like the Tibetans, the Frisians of northern Germany and the Netherlands had (nearly) no wood at their disposal to cremate bodies in the old days. The flat and barren tidal marshlands were too salty for trees. There was nearly no fresh water, and the area was regularly flooded by the sea. They had to find other ways to release the spirit from the flesh. Perhaps this is the shared reason behind these comparable rituals.


The Hounds of Hell - Many remains of buried dogs have been found in the terp soils, indicating that these animals had a special place within the community. The size of the dogs was significant. The dog burials at Hogebeintum and Oosterbeintum were dogs that stood 70 centimeters at the withers (see categories 2 and 3 below). The modern dog that comes closest is the Irish wolfhound. That dog is about 80 centimeters high. A dog the colonists of America took with them to fight wolves in the seventeenth century (Smeyers 2023).

These big dogs are not comparable with the much smaller typical Frisian dog breeds today, the Frisian wetterhoun 'water hound' with its curly coat (see image below), and the (rare) Stabyhoun. Maybe their eyes still give away some of their ancestors.

The fact that the big dogs were buried on their own, and therefore not placed together in a grave of a human, is very exceptional when compared to other cultures. The late eighth-century law codex Lex Frisionum distinguished no less than five types of dogs and the corresponding tariffs to be paid when the animals were killed.

The five categories of dogs were: (1) a lap dog or barmbraccum 'hunting dog'. Possibly ancestor of the havikshond or Münsterländer; (2) a dog that kills wolves; (3) a dog that can wound wolves; (4) a guard dog for livestock, and; (5) a dog that does nothing but hanging around in the hall or on the farm. It's thought that the big dogs might also have played a role in warfare as battle dogs. Fines for killing these dogs were: 4 solidi for category 1 dogs; 3 solidi for category 2 dogs; 2 solidi for category 3 dogs; 1 solidus for category 4 dogs, and: 1 tremissis for category 5 dogs.

The dog has the wolf as its origin. The wolf fulfilled an important role in European societies. It was praised for its strength and ferocity, explaining why many Germanic names have the element wolf in them. At the same time, the wolf was feared and associated with darkness and the Devil. See our post Who's afraid of Voracious Woolf?

Frisian Wetterhoun 'water hound'

Little more concerning cremation. Especially oak is needed if you want to have any success with burning a human body fully. About 200 to 300 kilograms are needed to fully burn a human body (Nieuwhof 2020). That's a lot. Dried peat and dried cow dung, which used to be the standard fuel on the tidal marshlands, do not do the job properly. For a cremation, they don't generate enough heat. Failed ancient experiments, maybe trying to imitate Roman rituals as suggested by archaeologists, have been traced by archaeologists in the present-day province of Groningen.

Since oak had to come from far inland, this was too much of a hassle. Thus, cremation was only reserved for special occasions or special individuals. One such exception was the cremation of Prince Hnaef of the Hocings (a Danish people) around the year 450. Hnaef was killed at the (former) mouth of the River Rhine in Frisia and burned on a pyre, as described in the Old English epic poem Beowulf. To learn more about this funeral, read our post Tolkien pleaded in favour of King Finn.

Because cremation was not a real option, and leaving the body somewhere in the salt marshes doesn't give you all the guarantees you need when it comes to your mother-in-law, something else is needed. Therefore, what you want to do is to bury her body. Where you do this is not relevant. What's important is to bury some limbs of the body separated from the body or, alternatively, to tie limbs together. It's harsh, but it works like a charm.

If you decide to tie her together, then there are several options. Fixing arms ensures she no longer can interfere in matters after her death, like raising her finger for not doing the dishes. If you want to have even more certainty, fix her legs as well. Then, at least you can outrun her. Do you want to have absolute certainty she no longer interferes with matters of the living, then bury one or more limbs separately.

The least invasive yet very effective option of the latter is to separate a foot from the body and bury it a meter or so beside the grave (see picture below). Note that she must not be able to reach her foot with her arms to prevent her from reconnecting it to her body. This way, she stays where she is buried, and you can relax.

grave with foot amputated

A last additional measure you can apply on top of the previous ones is to dig a ditch around your house and property. The water in the grooves separates the scary outer world from your inner world. To strengthen the force of the ditch, drop some human bones of 'good and jolly' ancestors in the ditch. A new-born lamb tied to a clay sod will help to strengthen the ditch's protective shield too. Circular trenches were also dug at early-medieval cremation or burial fields in the wider region. Maybe to keep the spirits 'inside'. If you are keen on making ditches or grooves yourself, check out our post Groove is in the Hearth before.

Finally, have some well deserved peace!

More morbid precautions

Funerals in the north of the Netherlands (i.e. former Frisia) until very recently contained some old, pre-Christian rituals. These were first of all processions with the deceased following the path encircling the graveyard. Often three times making the full round with the coffin. Its origin might be a rite de passage, a transition of the deceased from the world of the living to the world of the dead. But it was possibly also a way to trick the soul of the deceased that it wouldn't be able to find its way back to the world of the living. Occasionally, still rounds around the church are made with the deceased.

In the town of Zaandam in the province of Noord Holland, the most innovative church to trick the Devil has been designed. When the body of a deceased person is carried into the church, normally the Devil doesn't dare to enter. Far too holy for it. So it waits in front of the church for the procession to leave the church again. However, the Westerzijdekerk of Zaandam has a back exit especially for the dead. That way, the soul can escape and be safe, and the Devil is fooled and waits until Doomsday for the soul to come out again.

Furthermore, the graveyard itself. To this very day, these are often surrounded by a ditch, hedges, and a fence. Besides that, at the entrance fence, a cattle grid was placed on the path. All these measures make it impossible for the dead to check out from the hereafter. At the same time, these obstacles prevent the Man of Wealth and Taste from entering the graveyard. The cattle grid makes it impossible for the Devil to cross since, as we all know of course, it has the slim legs of a goat. Read also our post When the Gate of Hell opened at the Golden Necklace where the Devil was recognized by its goat legs in a tavern in the port of Harlingen.

All these defensive measures surrounding the graveyard were sometimes supplemented with a rotating fence called a kjirrewirre in Mid-Frisian language. These rotating fences, annex rotating crosses, revolve counter-clockwise, something the Devil is apparently unable to do. It can only pass objects clockwise. Lastly, the procession entered through the church door on the northern side, the side of darkness, of evil, and the Devil, and left the church through the southern door, the side of sun and Christianity. Of all these practices, examples can still be found in the north of the Netherlands.

Finally, a bit of morbid practice which, as far as we know, is not being practiced anymore, is the following. Infants who died before they were baptized could not be buried in the consecrated ground of a Catholic graveyard. Therefore, these infants were buried next to the graveyard. To make sure their body or spirit also stayed put, a stake was driven through the child's body into the soil. Later, when this practice somehow was not appreciated that much anymore, the remains of these unbaptized infants were placed in pots and placed next to the church's northern exterior wall. Although not buried in the sacred soil, at least within the protection of the graveyard and church. And with the rain falling from the holy Church roof on the pots, they were baptized nevertheless. At the old churches of Harich, Oudemirdum, Rottum, and Tjerkgaast, twelfth- and thirteenth-century remains of these pots with little children's bones have been found.

If interested in more old and obscure rituals and practices, you should also read our post Groove is in the Hearth.


Note 1 – Main source on the burial practices at the salt marshes in the Late Iron Age: Nieuwhof, A., Eight human skulls in a dung heap and more. Ritual practices in the terp region of northern Netherlands (2015).

Note 2 – In the region of Ostfriesland several sagas exist about black hounds appearing as ghosts or being the Devil (Siefkes 1963). Take for example the sagas: Die beiden Pudel, Der Pudel vom Diekhof, Der schwarze Hund von Oldehafe, Der Höllenhund bei Esens, Der schwarze Hund von Uphusen, Der Höllenhund bei Loga, Der Hund bei Strackholt.

Suggested music

George Thorogood & The Destroyers, Bad To The Bone (1982)

Michael Jackson, Thriller (1982)

Creedence Clearwater Revival, Born on the Bayou (1969)

Further reading

Bon Repos Gites, Demon Dogs and Hell Hounds (2023)

Buhrs, E., Old Companions, Noble Steeds: Why Dogs and Horses were Buried at an Early Medieval Settlement Along the Old Rhine. A Zooarchaeological analysis and literary review (2013)

Dijkstra, M.F.P., Rondom de mondingen van Rijn en Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3de en de 9de eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)

Guðmundsdóttir, L., Wood procurement in Norse Greenland (11th to 15th c. AD) (2021)

IJssennagger-van der Pluijm, N.L., De Lex Frisionum en archeologie (2023)

Knol, E., For Daily Use and Special Moments: Material Culture in Frisia, AD 400-1000 (2021)

Nieuwhof, A., Eight human skulls in a dung heap and more. Ritual practices in the terp region of northern Netherlands (2015)

Nieuwhof, A., Ezinge Revisited. The Ancient Roots of a Terp Settlement. Volume I: Excavation – Environment and Economy – Catalogue of Plans and Finds (2020)

Nijdam, H., Law and Political Organization of the Early Medieval Frisians (c. 600-800) (2021)

Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, Een wierde van waarde: schimmen uit het Rottumer verleden (2023)

Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019)

Siefkes, W., Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichte (1963)

Smeyers, K., Wolf. Wildernisgeschiedenis (2023)

Toebosch, T., Geen begrafenis, nee, laat de hond knagen aan de overledene. Ontvlezing was in Friesland een populair alternatief voor begraven of cremeren, zegt promovenda Annet Nieuwhof. NRC (2015)

Unknown, Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum (eighth century)

Williams, H., Material culture as memory: combs and cremation in early medieval Britain (2003).

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