Burial Custom and the Afterlife:

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Burial Custom and the Afterlife:

Post by John T Mainer on Mon Jun 13, 2011 3:52 pm

Burial Custom and the Afterlife:
Reflections on a paper: http://www.tanwayour.org/burial.html
Examination of the Sutta Hoo dig in England or the Swedish Vendel or Valsgdrde digs gives us the picture of elaborate ship-graves with grave goods for both men and women appropriate to their station. Custom from Denmark had been to apportion the goods of the rich into three, one third to the King, one to the kin, and one into the grave. The array of goods certainly is suggestive of the contention that early Heathens of some tribes viewed the grave or burial mound as the only afterlife, that the dead remained in the ground. This would certainly account for the burial mounds and custom of breaking the weapons, that they not tempt looters to steal from the dead.
Among the Angles, the custom of cremation was standard at least until the end of the seventh century, with no surviving metal or stonework to indicate the presence of jewellery or weapons with the dead. The dead were interred in mounds, with little decoration on the urns until the fifth century. The lack of grave goods and destruction of the body does support the idea of either an afterlife not linked to the body, or of no link to the body remaining after death.
There is scant evidence of an afterlife to be gleaned from the lore. The ancients had the occasional reference to Odin’s collecting heroes, and there are even some saga which imply reincarnation, but for all the deaths that are recorded in the saga’s, almost all the words are about the lives of the people, and the rest of the effect of their passage, with almost nothing about the “soul” of the departed. Clearly the question of the fate of the “soul” wasn’t a real issue to them.
What is important to them is how you lived, not what happened after you die. The idea that the gods owed us immortality is not contained in the lore. We know the Aesir themselves will share the mysteries of death with us, not because they must, but because their duty demands it.
The Saxon kept burying their dead with goods, even after diaspora. Clearly they were not concerned that separation from their ancestral dead would diminish their ability to receive aid and counsel from them. This argues against the idea that they believed the dead lived only in the physical grave, for the records indicate blots to Disir or Matrone by Germanic mercenaries throughout the Roman Empire, and by Vikings in new settlements in the later ages. With the conversion to Christianity, the customs of Angles and Saxons came into alignment, with interment in shroud; burial without goods or at least without weapons. This argues that the idea of burning was as much a threat to the afterlife being sold by the Christians as was the princely burial of the ship-grave.
Like Homer in his Iliad and Odyssey, our own saga poets assume their listeners share the same culture and assumptions of the poet, so they do not feel the need to spell out to us why anything is done, or to describe the minutia of customs. As a result we have lost everything the poets would assume “everybody knows” about our own custom. Even the early monks recording these sagas would have shared the cultural awareness and not thought to record what “everybody knows” until nobody still knew it.
In the end, it is for modern Heathens to make their own decisions about how to live their lives, and we will all discover the truth of the grave, and any afterlife, in our own time.

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