• Hans Faber

How to bury your mother-in-law



Your mother-in-law was probably chasing your tail during life. When she dies, don not think you are free at last. Looking for advice how you make sure she does not haunt you anymore when she is dead? Then this post is something 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 region (‘terp’ being an artificial settlement mound) of region Ostfriesland in Germany and the provinces 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 is not an option. Only three cremations have been found on the salt marsh area of the Netherlands. Common practice for the ancient people (Late Iron Age) of the north at the Wadden Sea coast was to leave the body somewhere at the tidal marshlands for scavengers. Mainly to be eaten by their own, many and big dogs.


Dogs acted as the intermediary between the present and the after world. The ancient salt-marsh funeral rites are in a way similar to those of the Tibetans today, where vultures fulfill 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 to cremate bodies in the old days. The flat and barren tidal marshlands were too salt for trees. Nearly no sweet water, and 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 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 which comes closest, is the Irish wolfhound. That dog is about 80 centimeters high. Not comparable with the much smaller typical Frisian dog breeds of today, the Frisian wetterhoun ‘water hound’ with its curly coat (see image below), and the (rare) Stabyhoun. Maybe their eyes 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) lap dog or barmbraccus ‘hunting dog’, fine 4 solidi; (2) those that kill wolves, fine 3 solidi; (3) those that can wound wolves, fine 2 solidi; (4) those that guard the cattle, fine 1 solidus, and; (5) that which does nothing but just hangs around in the hall or on the farm, fine 1 tremissis. It is thought that the big dogs might also have played a role in warfare as battle dogs.


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 you need to fully burn a human body (Nieuwhof 2020). That is a lot. Dried peat and dried cow dung, what used to be the standard fuel on the tidal marshlands, does not do the job properly. For a cremation it does not generate enough heat. Failed ancient experiments, maybe trying to imitate Roman rituals as has been suggested by archaeologists, in present-day province Groningen have been traced 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 te year 450. Hnaef was killed in Frisia and burned on a pyre, as described in the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Want to know more about this funeral, read our blog post Tolkien pleaded in favor of King Finn.


Because cremation was not a real option, and 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, something else is needed. Therefore, what you want to do is to bury her body. Where you do this is not relevant. What is important, is to bury some limbs of the body separated from the body or, alternatively, to tie limbs together. It is 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 newborn lamb tied to a clay sod will help to strengthen the ditch’ 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 our blog post Groove is in the hearth before.



Finally, have some well deserved peace!



Epilogue


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 deceased not to be able to find her or his way back to the world of the living. In Zaandam, province Noord Holland, the most innovative church has been designed to trick the Devil. When a the body of a deceased is carried into the church, normally the Devil does not dare to enter. So, it waits at the front of the church for the procession to come out. But the Westerzijdekerk of Zaandam has a back exit, especially for the dead, and that way the Devil is fooled and the soul safe.


Furthermore, the graveyard itself. To this very day, these are 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 things prevent the Man of Wealth and Taste from entering the graveyard. The cattle-grid made it impossible for the Devil to cross since, as we all know of course, it has the legs of a goat.


All these defensive measures were sometimes supplemented with a rotating fence called in Mid-Frisian language a kjirrewirre. These rotating fences/crosses revolve counterclockwise, 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.


Lastly, a bit of morbid practice which, as far as we know, is not being practiced anymore, is the following. 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 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, these children were placed in pots, and placed next to the church exterior wall. Although not buried in the sacred soil, at least within the protection of the graveyard and church. At the old churches of Harich, Oudemirdum and of Tjerkgaast, twelfth- and thirteenth-century remains of these pots with children bones have been found.


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




Note – 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).



Further reading

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)

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)

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)

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

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