Leading families in Iceland and Greenland chose to accept Christianity around the year 1000. Yet, as they say, it is easier said than done, and the Icelanders and Greenlanders may have found implementing Christian ideas into their societies to be a trickier task than they might have imagined. One area of major confusion was apparently burials. Questions seemed to have abounded on topics such as whether the dead in Iceland and Greenland could continue to be buried in unconsecrated ground. Could burial sites be consecrated after the funeral? Did priests need to interact with the bodies before they were buried? In Greenland, some of the earliest Christians supposedly came to a hybrid decision in which they buried their dead whenever and wherever they wished, but included a small access point into the grave. At some later point, ordained priests could drop holy material down into the tombs, which would presumably bless the ground and burial.
This interesting process was mentioned and described in Eirik the Red’s Saga, an anonymously-written text from the 13th century. On these burials, the saga claimed:
“It had been common practice in Greenland, since Christianity had been adopted, to bury people in unconsecrated ground on the farms where they died. A pole was set up on the breast of each corpse until a priest came, then the pole was pulled out and consecrated water poured into the hole and a burial service performed, even though this was done much later” (Eirik the Red’s Saga, chapter 6).
As the writer of the saga hinted, the process described in the book was apparently looked down upon by the church and more proper ways of burial were introduced and encouraged. Eirik the Red’s Saga, in case some people were still considering burials in unconsecrated ground, also included a tale about a draugr—a Norse zombie—that came back from the dead to beg for his body to be brought to a church and buried on hallowed ground. The worried zombie reportedly said:
“These practices will not do which have been followed here in Greenland after the coming of Christianity: burying people in unconsecrated ground with little if any service said over them. I want to have my corpse taken to a church, along with those of the other people who have died here” (Eirik the Red’s Saga, chapter 6).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene from the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, illustrated by Christian Krohg (1852–1925), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Vinland Sagas (Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga) translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.