The Wardens of the Dead: Examining Death and Dying in Modern Heathenry Part II

For thee, who mindful of th' unhonour'd Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate

-Thomas Gray

Our duties to tribe and kin do not end at the line separating life and death. Frith demands that we continue our relationship with the dead as they continue their relationship with us in the form of benign ancestors. The applications and manifestations of this reciprocal relationship are endless, but for now we will focus on that which transforms the dead from ghost to ancestor: the funeral rite. By examining ancient heathen mortuary practices and transfigurations of the dead, we can reclaim the traditions of post-mortem tribal identity and reassert its necessity into our modern age.

The funeral rite was and remains a vital act of community. To understand why this is, we must examine all aspects of the ritual itself, from methods of burial to the presence of grave goods and their significance. Each part of the nuanced ritual drama serves to ferry the dead to the mound and rebuild them in the image of their greatest selves.

The living tribes of antiquity worked to maintain the continuity of identity in the dead. Excavations of several Anglo-Saxon gravesites have revealed that the departed were commonly buried not in their best or richest attire, but in a composite of what frequently was worn in life.[1] These clothes forge a link between who the deceased was in life and who they are in death; a reminder of self that survives beyond the trauma of physical expiration. Accompanying the funeral costume are an array of grave goods, also likely intended to both accompany the dead to their new hall and to ward the dead against losing their sense of self. These grave goods typically combined offerings of food and gifts made to the dead by the living, and a collection of possessions owned by the dead in life.[2] Appearing frequently among the recovered materials are the utterly mundane and yet intensely intimate artifacts of personal grooming. Combs, tweezers, ear scoops, and nail trimmers are found throughout Anglo-Saxon burial sites [3],[4], seemingly innocuous items that reveal the cultural attitude toward death and regrowth of the soul. These items can readily be viewed within the scope of the transformation process, allowing the dead to arrange and modify their appearance. The inherent symbolism of the functionality of these objects can only further reinforce the transformed nature of the identity of the dead.

Beyond the realm of what the dead are buried with and into how the corpse is put to rest, the pattern of sustained identity continues to emerge. Across Scandinavia, men of worth and renown were interred in howes, funerary chambers that served not only as the dwelling place for the dead, but also functioned as a memorialization of worth[5], an announcement that a notable figure lie buried within. This very physical reminder of the living deeds of the dead builds the reputation of the deceased long after they die, exemplifying their best self, which in turns solidifies the identity of the dead.

Where we see evidence of cremation, perhaps the most intriguingly symbolic method of disposal, is where the case for transformative identity can be argued the most strongly. Archaeological evidence suggests that grave goods were burned on the pyre along with the deceased, as well as unburnt items placed among the ash and bone in the funerary urn. Adorning the outside of the urns are found reliefs of human expressions, giving a face once again to the transformed dead. Interred alongside the urns we find again functional toilet items, implements that allow the dead to become themselves once more. The symbolism of the complete systemic change triggered by the funeral pyre should not be overlooked[6].

Howard Williams, on whose work this essay draws heavily, reasons that it is likely the pyre contained wood from the deceased’s home, boats, and storage possessions. He does acknowledge that this is speculation evidenced by ethnographic study rather than concrete physical evidence, but it remains a speculation that does correspond with the methods of memorializing the dead.

As the ritual technician constructs the pyre and the deceased is dressed and placed upon it, the ritual drama begins. Beads, food, animals, and sometimes weapons are placed alongside the body. Once the flame is lit, consider the visceral experience of death that tribe would begin to participate in. Everything would combine into a total sensory exposure as the dead is transformed. The tribe is present. They are accompanying the dead on their journey. They tend the flames. They mourn. They make offerings. It is their duty to shepherd their dead.

As the flames complete their work and are allowed to gutter out, the dead has been transformed. No flesh remains. The copper alloys of beads, belts, and brooches have fused to their bones, permanent additions to their new shape. The ashes and bone fragments are gathered and placed in an urn decorated with memorializing iconography and art, giving face and form to the dead once more. Inside the urn among the remains are unburnt items and trinkets, and alongside it are additional utilitarian objects. The urns are then buried, protected with stones and heralded by markers, interred in close proximity to the living.[7]

In the burial ship at Sutton Hoo, there can be no doubt that the deceased was clearly a figure of monumental prestige, this class identity storied in the sumptuous nature of the ship and all that is found inside. As we are commanded by these artifacts to take heed of the importance of the figure to whom they belonged, so too is the dead reminded of their worth. Artifacts of the highest quality[8] are replete throughout, a hall suited for a man of immense social stature.

Said Grønbech, “The king sits as a king in his burial mound, and rules in all probability from there, just as in life he sat in his hall and by virtue of his kinsmen ruled from there, at the same time letting his clan-luck act upon the neighbors about him. He is a king in death, by virtue of what he is, not of what he was. And what he is depends entirely on the activity of his kinsmen.”[9]

When we take the individual pieces of the process and assemble them into the whole, it becomes woefully apparent that the juxtaposition of death culture in antiquity against our modern practices paints us all to the last with a brush of gross incompetence. The initial response to such a statement is naturally the want to reject it as untrue, but can we do so in good conscience? Stewardship of our dead has slipped through our fingers, a by-product of our modern age. Our dead are buried in their Sunday best, held in a container made by stranger’s hands, and laid to rest without any objects to associate them with their living and tribal identity. The landscape above their mounds is tended by a city employee, and too often, they are distressingly far from us.

If, as Grønbech states and ancient ritual demonstrates, the identity of the dead hinges on the actions of the living, what does this mean for modern practitioners? We have abandoned our dead save for a shallow show of gifting, and the - though heartfelt - all too infrequent words of worship in our Symbels.

This is not to imply that it was done with ill-intent or even willfully, but still it has occurred. We honor our dead with altars and offerings, but is it enough for them to retain the crux of their ipseity or are we honoring shadows? Like a mind riddled with dementia, are critical pieces lost in the disassociative crush of death if there is no kin to guide the way?

The implications to our luck are unsettling. Turning once again to Grønbech we are informed, “the dead man lives in his kinsmen, in every sense of the word: his luck is incorporated in those who survive him, and the life he leads in the grave and in the neighborhood of the grave has now as formerly its source in kinsmen’s luck.”[10]

This is a terrifying imagining, in no small part due to the abandonment of Frith that rests at its core. As we steward our dead, so do we steward our own luck and doom and if we allow the deficiency to continue, then we ourselves will be its victims when we inevitably perish. It is not enough that we simply remember our dead. They must be guided into remembering themselves. If that identity is not retained, how then can we expect our relationship to be remembered?

That is not to say that we are ruined; hope does remain. We speak often of Frith and its inviolable nature, and we may find comfort in that same steadfast anchor now. It is not that we cannot transgress against Frith, or even take part in its destruction, but that those who seek it can find the dormant seeds and nurture it into the greatest of trees.

We can bury our dead in familiar clothing. Funeral homes are required to accept third party caskets and crematory containers that meet regulation, which can translate into our ability to once more craft the containers for our own dead. Most also allow the presence of non-combustible and safe items in the cremation chamber, which means that burnt grave goods and offerings need not be a thing of the past. Additionally, embalming is not actually legally required before a cremation which, depending on tribal thew, may provide that additional benefit of being cremated with organs, fluid, and tissue intact.

Offerings and gifts should not be relegated to the merely good enough of our hearthstead altars, but should also be made at the actual gravesites where our dead reside. Though it varies from city to city, many graveyards will have a list of what sort of grave goods are acceptable to leave and which ones will be discarded by the caretakers. We should not be afraid to travel long distances to honor our dead at their dwelling places.

It is the goal of reconstruction that we observe the past in an effort to bring it forward to fit our modern era. So then must we once again take the reins of stewardship of the dead and prevent our loved ones from becoming lost.

We must view this undertaking for what it is: an act of love and reverence for those with whom our wyrd is woven. It is an act of cherished service, and all that the dead require in order to flourish as our kinsmen is that we be their kinsmen. All offerings and gifts should be gladly given, for each is a demonstrable example of the strength and tenacious immortality of Frith.

  1. Williams, Howard, "Mortuary Practices in Anglo-Saxon England." ↩︎

  2. Williams, Howard, "Mortuary Practices in Anglo-Saxon England." ↩︎

  3. Williams, Howard, "Transforming Body and Soul: Toilet Implements in Early Anglo-Saxon Graves." ↩︎

  4. McKinley, Jacqueline, Leivers, Matt, Schuster, Jorn, Marshall, Peter, Barclay, Alistair J, and Stoodley, Nick, "Cliff End Farm, Isle of Thanet, Kent. A Mortuary and Ritual Site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Anglo-Saxon Period." Ch 7 ↩︎

  5. Ellis, Hilda Roderick, "The Road To Hel. A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature." Ch 2 ↩︎

  6. Williams, Howard, "Transforming Body and Soul: Toilet Implements in Early Anglo-Saxon Graves." ↩︎

  7. Williams, Howard, "A Well-Urned Rest: Cremation and Inhumation in Early Anglo-Saxon England." ↩︎

  8. Wilson, David, "Anglo-Saxon Art: From the 7th Century to the Norman Conquest." ↩︎

  9. Grønbech, Vilhelm, "The Culture of The Teutons." Vol 1. Ch 12 ↩︎

  10. Grønbech, Vilhelm, "The Culture of The Teutons." Vol 1. Ch 12 ↩︎