Norwegian Cultural Gems – Burial Practices, Cemeteries, Heritage Clothing and Family Traditions

I must say, I’ve never had such an enjoyable airport bus ride before. Unfortunately, based on my flight time, I was boarding a bus at my Oslo hotel before 5 AM for the hour ride to the airport. Oslo was deserted.

I sat in the front seat, as I tend to suffer from motion sickness. The bus had one, count ‘em, one other rider. I intended to sleep.

The driver must have been bored out of his mind, as he pulled up to stop after stop with no one waiting. He asked me what brought me to Oslo.

“A genealogy conference,” I replied, and he told me that his aunt had done their family genealogy and was watching some “special” on her computer all weekend. Yep, you guessed it, she was watching the MyHeritage LIVE conference.

As we drove through the Norwegian night, he explained a great deal about their family customs and in particular, funerary culture.

Burial Traditions

His family had lived in Oslo for generations, as long as the records reached back in time. They used to own land in the city center, being wealthy merchants and traders. As such, they bought a “row” of 10 cemetery plots generations ago.

I asked where the current generation would be buried because, given how long his family had owned their row, surely it was full by now.

That’s when my education began.

Triple-Bunk Burials

First, he told me that they bury people 3 deep, stacked one on top of the other.

“Oh,” I said, “that’s interesting,” – wondering silently about how deep that bottom person needs to be planted. I asked about concrete vaults and he said they don’t use them in Norway. He asked why we’d want to. I’ve wondered the same thing myself, many times.

Of course, I’m pondering the logistics of how this triple-bunking works, but they’ve had generations to perfect the details.

Then, I wondered whose name is on the gravestone? Or is there a gravestone? He explained, “With each new person buried, another name gets added to the stone.”

He told me that his parents are divorced, but when his mother’s “time comes” they will bury her in the family “row,” but not on top of Dad. Neither one of them would like that. “No, no!” he reiterated, shaking his head vigorously. I’m sure there’s a story there.

Next, I asked when their 30 “slots” would be full and what happens then?

Recycled Graves 

“Well,” he replied, “then we dig up everyone and start all over, reusing the entire grave.”

What? How would they know that the top person was “ready.”

He indicated that they have special probes and they poke around in the grave to be sure the casket and body are sufficiently decayed.

Ok, that took a moment to sink in. I was trying desperately not to see visuals of this at 5 in the morning and couldn’t help but think of bad puns.

Hmm, OK, that makes sense – but that would take a long time. I looked into decay rates when I was considering exhuming my father and discovered that after 50 years, the skin has started to decay – but then, that’s with embalming. Maybe these people weren’t embalmed.

I asked how long they wait before using the entire gravesite again.

Expecting to hear an answer something like 50 or 100 years, I was shocked when he said “10 years.”

So I asked, “What do they do with the bones?”

“There aren’t any bones.”

I decided to spare him the morbidity of the decay rate study I read and the archaeology digs I’ve been a part of. Clearly, there are some bones that survive for hundreds of years.

“What if there are bones?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do they have ossuaries in Norway for any remaining bones to continue returning to dust?”

“What’s an ossuary?”

Thinking that maybe translation was an issue, since ossuary isn’t a common word, I explained that an ossuary is a little house in the cemetery for the bones to be housed in, similar in size to a shed, while they finished decaying. 

“No, he said, nothing like that.”

The Honor of Payment

He paused for a few minutes to pull over at the next stop, then said that the honor of paying goes to the oldest son.

“Paying? For what?”

“For the graves?”

“For maintenance?”

“No, the cemetery takes care of mowing the grass. It’s so that no one else can be buried in the grave.”

“But your family bought the land?”

“Yes, but if we don’t pay every year, someone else will be buried in the grave.”

“How soon?”

“Whenever we no longer pay, unless the entire plot is full, and then it’s as soon as the top grave is decayed so they can dig them all up and reuse the spot.”

“What happens to the headstones if someone else is buried on top that isn’t a family member?”

“The old headstone is removed.”

“Thrown away?”

“No, moved to a different location in the cemetery. The person who keeps the books can tell you where it is.”

“So your ancestors could be in graves 1 and 2 of the triple-bunk graves, then no one pays the annual bill so a non-family-member is buried in the top grave. Your family stone is removed and only the top person has a stone, but your ancestors are still actually buried there, even though the stone has been removed? What happens then?”

“If the family of the third (top) person pays the annual fee, the grave won’t be used for at least 10 years, and maybe not after that if they continue to pay.”

“When they stop paying?”

“Then all 3 graves get dug up and someone else is buried there.”

Cremation

“Are people cremated in Norway?”

“Sometimes. It’s not very popular, but it’s gaining popularity now. Sometimes they create small rows in cemeteries, or you can bury the cremated remains in your own row if you have one. But it’s not traditional.”

“Do they cremate people here because of cost?”

“I don’t know. A full funeral with a visitation costs about 2500.” (US)

“Wow, that’s at least 4 times less expensive than in the US.”

He paused as we rounded a corner.

Gallows Hill

“See that church in the distance? That’s called Gallows Hill. In the dark ages, when someone was hung, everyone from the city came and sat on the hill, looking up, watching the top where the person would be hung, near the church. The actual place of execution is gone today, but it’s still called Gallows Hill.”

I love old cities.

We drove on, stopping at another stop with no people waiting. He had to wait a minute or two, just in case, so he pointed to the right, into the inky night.

Grave Candles

“See those tiny lights flickering over there?”

I squinted.

“Yes.”

“Those are candles in the cemetery, on the graves.”

“Candles? It’s 5 AM.”

“Yes, people leave them to honor their family and ancestors and almost anytime you can see candles burning.”

I saw quite a few, and it was a weekday early morning.

“At Christmas, people decorate the graves and everyone lights candles. The cemetery is lit up beautifully and if it snows, it’s incredibly scenic with an otherworldly glow. I can’t explain it.”

You can read more about candles in Norway, here. Norwegians love candles. You view photos here.

“How do the flames keep from being extinguished?”

“There are special kinds of long-burning candles, but some people just use regular candles. There’s no electricity in the cemetery, of course.”

“Does your family do that?”

“Yes. Several of my siblings and myself don’t believe in religion, but we still all go to church together as a family on Christmas Day. We wear our traditional Norwegian folk costumes. Afterwards, we all go to the cemetery to visit the ancestors. For those people we knew, we light candles, and sometimes we light candles on all of the 10 spaces.”

Birthday Celebrations in the Cemetery

“When it’s warm, we go on their birthday and have coffee and crackers (cookies) and sit round, laugh and reminisce fondly. It’s a celebration. When it’s cold, we don’t stay so long.”

“So, it’s a happy time. No tears?”

“Well, it can sometimes be sad too, but we are together. Often we stay a couple hours and talk about the person, remembering their life. My grandfather, he was the best, most honorable man on earth. I miss him but I like spending time at his grave.”

I reflected on this lovely custom for a few minutes. 

“I like that your culture views it as an honor to be selected to pay for the plots, and not a burden.”

“We have other similar traditions.”

Inheritance of Heirlooms

“In my family, a hand-made clock always goes to the eldest son before he is age 30. It has never been owned by a woman. That clock, when my parents were getting divorced, it was sad.”

“Sad?”

“Yes, sad. We knew because it lost 8 minutes every night. When the divorce was over, it recovered and never lost time anymore. 

Specific antique chairs go to the second eldest child, whether male or female.  That’s me!” and he smiles broadly.

“Another heirloom goes to the oldest living family member. In my case, when my Dad dies, that will be my aunt, if she is still living then.

An ax gets passed to someone, although who gets it is always a surprise, along with the story of who owned the ax and the legend of the ax. It was used by my ancestor to clear the trees for Oslo.”

“Was he a Viking?”

“Maybe!”

He smiles.

Traditional Clothing

“Sometimes our traditional costumes get passed down too. They are very, very expensive, costing several thousands of dollars.” (US)

So, I thought, funerals are cheap by comparison and traditional costumes (called Bunads) are more expensive than funerals, beginning at about $3000 (US).

“Tell me about the costumes.”

“Every person in Norway is either supposed to purchase a traditional costume, their parents purchase the costume, or it’s made or bequeathed to you by a family member. Each village and region has their own style, and you’re supposed to make a traditional style that connects you with where your ancestors were from. There is traditional jewelry that goes along with them too.

See that store over there? They specialize in traditional costumes, but the costumes are very expensive no matter where you purchase them.”

“When do you wear them?”

“I ordered mine for a friend’s wedding, because I needed it quickly. No time to have it made. I also grew a celebration mustache for having my niece baptized last weekend. I wore my costume then too. We wear the costumes for special occasions like that, National days of celebration plus holidays sometimes. When we want to dress up. It’s our finest, most proud clothing and reflects the unique culture of where our ancestors were born, no matter where we live today. Some people can identify your family place of birth by looking at your costume. It’s our way of wearing our heritage.”

Here’s an example of a girl from the fjord near Hardanger, with beautiful traditional Hardanger embroidery on her apron.

Arvind (அரவிந்தன்) – Self-photographed

If you’d like to view some lovely Norwegian heritage clothes, click here and then click on the front, back and side views.

Culture of Tradition 

I so enjoyed his family stories and was so grateful that he chose to enlighten a stranger on his bus in the middle of the night.

These traditions may not be shared by all families, but certainly, they provide a perspective of life in Scandinavia in a family that still values and cherishes their ancestors and family customs.

And yes, I did ask if he had DNA tested and he said that his brother and aunt had both tested, and they were mostly Scandinavian. He was wondering why they were ethnically anything else, which is highly ironic since many of us have been trying to figure out for years why we are Scandinavian.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my bus ride. I surely did!

30 thoughts on “Norwegian Cultural Gems – Burial Practices, Cemeteries, Heritage Clothing and Family Traditions

  1. If you were surprised at the Norwegian practice of multiple burials, take a look at the practices at Per Lachaise cemetery in Paris. It’s where a great many very notable French people are buried along with the likes of Jim Morrisson.

  2. Thank you so much! I very much enjoyed this information about the burials, candles, costumes, etc. It’s too bad that in American many old traditions have been forgotten.

  3. Thank you for the burial information. That cleared up what my aunt told us about Mom. It makes me feel better, knowing.

    • I thought of you the entire time he was talking. I told him about your Mom and that’s part of why he explained the way he did.

  4. The Swedes have a thing about candles too, particularly in winter. Their cemeteries are candle lit and they become magical places; the midwinter church services are candle lit. People don’t seem to use curtains and their houses are candle lit in the windows. On 13th December is Santa Lucia Day and the young women dress in white and put a candle crown on, though the candles are battery powered. It is an amazing sight to see a sleigh in the forest in the afternoon-it is dark by 3 pm-with six young women in white with candle lit crowns and St Lucia music. I think the candles harks back to the pre-Christian times. Many still put food out at certain times of the year for the trolls. The last thing one wants is Christmas to be ruined by an hungry troll or two.

  5. I love that you put a photo of a young South Indian in traditional Norwegian costume! It says something about the accepting attitude of the culture. (And nice to note that I can still read Tamil after 40 years 😉

  6. So much fun to read this through you eyes. For us this has been how it is, forever. I remember I was lucky to make a photograph of my great grandmothers gravestone a few years ago. When I was back on the graveyeard last year, the stone was gone and her daugther and her husbands stone was placed at the spot and she was gone. Kind of sad… We pay rent for keeping our ancestors gravestone 10 years at the time, and it is a very small fee.
    Luckily we have a Norwegian burial search database where you can find old graves: http://www.disnorge.no/gravminner/index.php?language=engelsk.

  7. That was very interesting! Next time I take an early flight and I’ll hope for a bus driver interesting in sharing his customs.

  8. Thank you for the fascinating read. I think that info should be part of your family stories and wish I had mine.

  9. The grave practices sound familiar to me in Holland; in the city where I live, it is relatively common that one grave plot will contain three people on top of each other. If it is a private grave, often one of the children pays for the ownership of the grave. There are also public graves, where often poorer people will get buried (also three on top of each other). These remain for 10 years. I don’t know what they will do with the bones afterwards. The Dutch probably call it “efficient”. Practices may differ per cemetery though; especially on the country-side there is more space so they don’t necessarily have to bury people on top of each other or empty graves there.

  10. Thank you for sharing your early morning bus ride info. I’ve enjoyed your trip to the land of my ancestors. I’ve noticed in rural cemeteries where I live that people have added small solar lights at the grave sites. Perhaps they are following Scandinavian tradition.

  11. Others have commented as I intended so I will simply suggest (if it interests you) that you look at the burial practices in other areas of Europe, and particularly in places like Bavaria and nearby parts of Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, etc., where multi-person-deep graves are common, reuse of graves is standard, and fascinating (?) “sculptures” comprising human bones are found. The shortage of available (desirable?) space is likely part of the reason, largely avoided in the US in the mid-19th century when many cities (e.g., Manhattan and Brooklyn) relocated small cemeteries and their remains to garden cemeteries further out for both public health and economic development purposes (I tend to thing the latter was more the reason than the former). We have largely forgotten some of that history, perhaps the reason we find the old-world traditions so intriguing today.

  12. Roberta I have a conundrum. I love sharing your fabulous posts, this being a new favorite. However whenever I share them I feel I’ve exhausted the “another must read by Roberta!” line.

    The way you explain, parallel previous posts — the possibly exhuming dad post — is how I found you in the first place! Because there has been longstanding doubt my mom’s dad was really genetic. Well her first DNA test on 23andMe quickly settled that as about a dozen first & second cousins proved paternity.
    So no more pondering old hair brushes or disturbing his remains.

    Keep on awesome blogging!

    Many thanks!!!
    Tash

    • I’m glad so many resonate with you. I no longer have to dig up dad either. Good thing since I discovered he’s buried in the “wrong” side of the tombstone:). In any case, I’ve been saving stamps and envelopes and maybe now that will come to fruition.

  13. Wow! Loved going on the bus ride with you. I tested with Ancestry which originally had me 3% Scandinavian. Then they changed and it became less. A friend with the same last name as me, though unrelated as far as we know, recently took a Scandinavian Cruise due to his heritage. (Last name Gemmell) I uploaded my DNA into to My Heritage and they give me a whooping 40%. Your email post is the first time I really took a closer look.

  14. Thank you for sharing this “interview”. Having recently learned that my heritage is largely Norwegian, I found it enlightening. It saddens me that my ancestors didn’t carry their traditions to their new found land.

  15. Thank you! I really enjoyed this. Ancestry use to show me with 9% Scandinavian (no paper trail so maybe my unknown great grandfather) but it got rolled over into my French. MyHeritage and another site still show me with 9% Scandinavian and I have 2 distant cousins from Norway on FTDNA and just recently added a Swede plus there are a couple on MyHeritage so I don’t know if I have Scandinavian or not. But if I do I was lucky enough to be on the I-M253 haplogroup (my paternal and maternal lines haplogroup) Facebook page one day and one of the posters had a familiar surname and sure enough it was the same as one of my Norwegian cousins on FTDNA so I posted a message to him and he was kind of enough to reply – it turns out he was the son of my cousin! He was kind enough to tell me where his father’s family came from in Norway and the origin of the surname (a farm), I didn’t even ask him for the info as I was just so surprised to actually come across a distant cousin on a Facebook site. Anyway, this is a great article whether I have a Norwegian ancestor or not.

  16. “What do they do with the bones?” “There aren’t any bones” Same question I had and answer I got in Switzerland. I never got to the bottom of it and still wonder. Some chemical, I suppose or cremation? Another reason to be thankful for DNA, the gift that keeps on giving.

  17. I enjoyed reading this post, My 2 brothers and I here in the USA just made payment for 10 years for the family grave in Grimstad where my mom and dad are buried along with his family. We are the closest relatives to anyone in this grave, Luckily we have cousins who are still in Grimstad who have helped us with arranging for the payment,

  18. It is 2 a.m. and I so enjoyed your ride to the airport!!!!

    It has brought up some things our family is facing….. this summer my brother and I and our families got to the mausoleum and the keys finally worked and in we went. My twin brothers are in the basement so a ladder was needed to descend. Since I no longer go up on ladders to hang xmas lights I did not go down to have a look. All but the two year old had smart phones so we did Facetime with those who went down to “see” what was there. The cemetery card said – an iron box with three (from graves moved for city development) – an Italian Count who had the misfortune to die in this country and my twin brothers. The baby coffins had fallen off the pile, broken and spilled their bones. There are no plaques or identification on any but the Count. My SIL and I see DNA possibilities my brother sees $$$$ spent. Who does one call to get DNA extracted from bones?? Where does one get a box to gather the bones?

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