It has long been known from historical sources that cemeteries were organized and divided into zones for the graves of various social groups. The zones correspond to a rough division of the population into an upper, middle, and lower class, but, with her dissertation, Kristina Jonsson is the first scholar to attempt to delineate the social zones in detail on the basis of the structures of the archeological material.

“Defining the zones made it possible to compare the social strata in society. For instance, it was possible to see how childhood was treated as a separate phase of life in the higher social strata and that advanced age could also be considered as granting status among these groups. Another pattern that emerged was that women appear to have been more equal to men in cities than in the countryside, but even in cities their status declined in the latter part of the Middle Ages,” says Kristina Jonsson.

Besides the systemization and organization of cemeteries, Kristina Jonsson also takes a close look at individual graves. During the early Middle Ages there were specific burial customs, such as burying the dead on a bed of charcoal and the practice of laying wooden rods in the grave for the deceased to take with him/her. Charcoal graves appear primarily to have been arranged in the highest social stratum, whereas wooden rods were placed in graves belonging to all social groups. Kristina Jonsson found clues regarding the meaning of these customs both in comparative historical material and in written accounts of folk beliefs from the 18th and 19th centuries.

“My conclusion is that the specific grave customs are expressions of notions about the uncleanliness of the dead body and about the protection that was regarded as necessary for both the dead and those who survived them. The dead needed help getting through purgatory, and the living needed protection against possible revenants. In connection with the Reformation in the 16th century, this type of folk belief experienced a revival, after having been absent during the late Middle Ages, at least in official burial contexts.”

The reformers dismissed many of the rituals and notions that had previously had a consoling effect on the survivors. For instance, they maintained that it was not of any importance to be buried in “consecrated ground” and that the prayers of the living would not be able to help the dead on the other side. These changes in the practice of faith and the anxiety they caused were probably what prompted the reversion to customs and practices more typical of the early Middle Ages, such as burying the dead fully clothed. This practice continued well into the 19th century and even longer in certain places, until the modern funeral business and the advent of the professional undertaker created a new standard.

Title of dissertation: Practices for the Living and the Dead: Medieval and Post-Reformation Burials in Scandinavia. The cover of the dissertation and an abstract can be seen at http://www.archaeology.su.se/pub/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=4637&a=70782

Further information
Kristina Jonsson, Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, mobile phone: +46 (0)73-8107211, e-mail kristina.jonsson@ark.su.se.

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