• Hans Faber

How to bury your mother-in-law

Updated: Jun 7

She was probably chasing your tail during life. When she dies, don not think too quick you are free at last. Want to know how you make sure your mother-in-law does not haunt you anymore when she is dead? Then this blog post is the thing 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 ancient terp region ('terp' being an artificial dwelling mound) of region Ostfriesland in Germany and the provinces Friesland and Groningen in the Netherlands.

First of all, cremation is not an option. Period. Common practice for the people of the north at the Wadden Sea coast was to leave the body of the deceased somewhere at the tidal marshlands for scavengers. Mainly to be eaten by their own big dogs. Dogs acted as the intermediare between the present world and the after world. Similar as the Tibetans still do, but where vultures fulfil this role in the excarnation burial. The Tibetans call it a sky burial. Just like the Tibetans, the Frisians of northern Germany and the Netherlands had (nearly) no wood to cremate bodies in the old days. They had to find another way to release the spirit from the body. The flat and barren tidal marshlands were too salt for trees. Nearly no sweet water, and regulary flooded by the salty sea.

Picture the image of these fighting and howling dogs at the barren wetlands, when darkness fell across the land.

Hounds of Hell

Many remains of buried dogs have been found in the terp soils, indicating these animals had a special place within the community. The size of the dogs was significant. The modern dog that comes closest, is the Irish wolfhound. Those dogs are about eighty centimeters height at withers. Not comparable with the typical Frisian dog breed of today, the Frisian wetterhoun 'water hound' with its curly, greasy coat and much smaller, about sixty centimeters height at withers. We are in the dark whether the wetterhoun could qualify as intermediare, and do the dead-human-eating job.

Especially oak is needed if you want to have any success with burning a human body fully. Dried peat and dried cow dung, what used to be the standard fuel at the tidal marshlands, does not do the job properly. For a cremation it does not generate enough heat. Failed two-thousand-year-old experiments, maybe trying to imitate Roman rituals as has been suggested by archaeologists, have been excavated in present-day province Groningen by archaeologists. Since oak had to come from far away inland, this was too much of a hassle. Thus, cremation was only reserved for special occasions or for special persons. One such an exception was the cremation of prince Hnaef of the Hocings (a Danish people) around AD 450. Hnaef was killed in Frisia and burned on a pyre, as described in the Old English epic poem Beowulf and in the Finnsburh Fragment. If you want to know more about this particular funeral, read our blog post Tolkien pleaded in favor of king Finn.

So, cremation is not an option, but also leaving the body somewhere at the salt marshes, does not give you all the guarantees you need when it comes to your mother-in-law. Indeed, something else, something more thorough is needed. Therefore, what you want to do is to bury the body! Where you do this is not relevant. What is important, is to bury some limbs of the body separated from her body or, alternatively, to tie limbs together. It is harsh, but it really 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 or for not picking up yours socks. 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 your mother-in-law 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 option is to separate a foot from the body and bury it a meter or so beside the grave (see picture of this blog post above). Note that she must not be able to reach her foot with her arms to prevent her from secretly reconnecting it to her body. That would bring you back to square one. When properly executed, this way your mother-in-law stays where she is buried and you can relax, and have a drink.

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. If you are keen on making your own protective ditches or grooves, check out our blog post Groove is in the hearth.

Finally, have some well deserved peace!

More recent death rituals in Frisia

Funerals in the north of the Netherlands (i.e. former Frisia) till very recently contained some old, pre-christian rituals. Some still exist.

These were/are first of all funeral 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 deceased not to be able to find her or his way back to the world of the living.

Furthermore, the funeral procession with the deceased entered through the church door on the northern side; the side of evil and the devil. The procession left the church through the southern door, the side of christianity and of light.

Then the graveyard itself. Till this very day, it is surrounded by a ditch, hedges and a fence. Besides these, at the entrance fence a cattle grid is/was placed on the path. All these barriers make it impossible for the dead to check out from the hereafter. At the same time, these safety measures prevent the devil from entering the graveyard. The cattle grid made it for the devil impossible to cross, since it has the legs of a goat. Everybody knows this, of course.

These fences were sometimes supplemented with a rotating fence called in Mid-Frisian language a kjirrewirre. These rotating fences, annex crosses, revolve exclusively counterclockwise, something the Devil is apparently unable to. It can only pass things clockwise. A few graveyards in province Friesland still have kjirrewirres.

Of all these practices, examples can still be found in the north of the Netherlands.

Lastly, a bit of morbid practice. Children who died before they were baptized, could not be buried at a consecrated, Catholic graveyard. Therefore, they were buried next the graveyard. To make sure they or their spirits also stayed put, a stake was driven through the little body into the soil. Later, when this practice somehow was not appreciated that much anymore, these unfortunate children were placed in pots and placed next to the church exterior wall. At the churches of the villages Harich, Oudemirdum and Tjerkgaast twelfth and thirteenth centuries remains of these pots with children bones have been found. As far as we know, these practices have stopped.

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


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). Secondary sources: 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); Unknown, Indiculus superstitionum et paganiarum (eighth century), check out our post Groove is in the Hearth as well; 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); Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019).

Suggested music:

Jackson, M., Thriller (1984)


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