• 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. Want to know how you make sure she does not haunt you anymore when she is dead? Then this blog 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 region ('terp' being an artificial dwelling mound) of region Ostfriesland in Germany and the provinces Friesland and Groningen in the Netherlands. After reading this you will tramp the soil carefully when you hike stages 4 - 6 of the Frisia Coast Trail.

First of all, cremation is not an option. Common practice for the ancient people 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 world and the after world. Similar as the Tibetans still do, but where vultures fulfil this role. 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 spirit from body. The flat and barren tidal marshlands were too salt for trees. Nearly no sweet water, and regulary flooded by the salt sea.

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. That dog is about eighty centimeters high. Not comparable with the typical Frisian dog breed of today, the Frisian wetterhoun 'water hound' with its curly coat and much smaller.

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 on the tidal marshlands, does not do the job properly. For a cremation it doesn't 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. 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. 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 the 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 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 above). 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.

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 your own ditches or grooves, check out before our blog post Groove is in the hearth.

Finally, have some well deserved peace!

Epilogue

Funerals in the north of the Netherlands (i.e. former Frisia) till 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.

Furthermore, the graveyard itself is, till this very day, 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 Devil from entering the graveyard. The 'cattle-grid made it for the Devil impossible to cross since he 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 apperently unable to do. He can only pass clockwise. Lastly, the procession entered through the church door on the northern side, the side of evil and the devil, and left the church through the southern door, the side of christianity. 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, couldn't 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 body into the soil. Later, when this practice somehow wasn't appreciated that much anymore, these children were placed in pots and placed next to the church exterior wall. At the 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.

References

Main source on the buriel 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 AD), 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).

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