When I think about the dead and cemeteries, my mind always returns to a particular memory. It’s not even my own memory, but something my ex-husband told me years ago when our first child was a toddler. They were riding in the car together and passed by a cemetery when our son said, unprompted, “I don’t like that place.”
“Why not?” his dad asked.
“There’s too many people there.”
His dad looked over at the cemetery, expecting to see a crowd of people, maybe gathered for a funeral. But it was empty.
Graves as Dwellings
For many of us, even pagans, gravesites are lonely spots. They are places where the living rarely go except to say goodbye to their dead and drop by, every so often, as a point of duty and remembrance, but not communion. The belief in the transmigration of the soul — wherein the soul and body are separate and divisible, and death is the freeing of the soul from the confines of the body — is a persistent belief shared by various religions. It’s not a wrong idea, but it has a way of rendering gravesites into places of deposition, not dwellings. They are places for letting go, not connecting.
Yet there are tales of spirits residing in burial places around the world. In the U.S., we have legends of ghost hitchhikers, who suddenly appear on the side of the road. If a driver stops and picks them up, they’re told by the hitchhiker — who may be a man or a woman, and is often young — that they are headed home. In the versions I’ve heard, the hitchhiker guides the driver along the way, but when the hitchhiker asks for the car to be stopped, it’s in front of a cemetery, and the hitchhiker disappears. Alternatively, the hitchhiker may disappear in the vehicle en route, but will leave a piece of borrowed clothing (like a jacket) on their headstone. This modern folklore implies that the dead dwell in the places where they are laid to rest. They can leave and roam, but only temporarily. They are ultimately bound to that spot, albeit with tethers that may be long or short. Like the living, they always return home.
It’s the same in Norse literature about draugar. Hilda Davidson, in The Road to Hel, describes the walking dead who leave their burial places at night and return to them in the morning. One such example is Glamr from Grettirs saga, who is buried under a cairn but emerges at night (especially in the wintertime) to haunt his employer’s homestead. Similarly, Rhode Island history has the true story of Mercy Brown, who died of a tuberculosis infection during the 19th-century New England Vampire Panic. After her death, she was believed by her community to have turned into a vampire, draining the life of her family members. Her body was exhumed and found well-preserved, a telltale sign of vampirism. She was believed to leave her grave, haunt her family in the night to feed on their life-forces, and then return to her grave by morning.
During a conversation I had with Marc of Axe and Plough about the underworld, he noted that “Mediterranean cultures generally treated the tomb as the extension of the life cycle of the house. So the dead are still there as full family members (or malevolent ghosts, depending), who are simply living their best lives on the other side.” He noted that the Etruscans built necropolises — whole cities — for their dead. Burial grounds, the places where the dead dwell, are not only places of deposition. They are homes that can be visited by the living, who can seek out the wisdom of the dead through particular ritual acts. We can do the same at our cemeteries, where our more recently deceased are buried and, perhaps, continue to dwell.
The spirits of the dead seem to remain bound to their bodies: first their flesh and bones, and then, after disintegration, to the land itself. We have the Brothers Grimm tale “The Moon,” in which four travelers steal the moon and take a quarter of it with them into their graves, gradually illuminating the world of the dead. When the moon becomes full in the underworld (and thus disappears in the world of the living), the dead wake and resume the activities they enjoyed while alive. In various versions of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” the princesses descend into the earth via a staircase hidden under one’s bed to dance with princes who dwell there. In some versions of the tale, these princes are described as elves, but in others, the implication seems to be that they are the souls of the dead who tried and failed to guess the princesses’ secret before.
The Transformation of the Dead
Barrows, mounds, and burial grounds are consistently regarded in folklore as the homes of the dead as well as elves, fae, and trolls. In folklore, the elves and fae are said to live within hills or barrows, or otherwise within the earth. Take, for example, the story of the peasant of Viol mentioned by Benjamin Thorpe:
He passed by a grave-mound where the underground-folk were celebrating a great festival, and just in the act of sending round a large golden beaker, in which was a beverage in appearance resembling buttermilk” (70).
Davidson notes Icelandic laws that forbid necromancy, or divination through communication with the dead. She quotes the Gulathings Christenret, which condemns “paeir er fraeista draugha upp at vaekia aeda haugbua,” or “those who attempt to rouse draugar or howe-dwellers” (168). She also mentions “In the Aeldre Gulathings Lov the practice of those who utisetu at vekia troll upp, at fremia heidrni med pvi,” which roughly translates to “mound-sitting to wake the trolls, to do heathenry.” This clearly links the dead with trolls, supernatural creatures typically associated with nature. It reminds me of King Ólaf Geirstaða Álfr, who ruled in Norway, likely in the 9th century, and was buried in a barrow. In the Flateyjarbok, it’s said that he was venerated so fervently by his people after death that he became an elf.
What if, as our bodies break down and join the earth, so do our spirits become part of the living earth? When there is nothing left of our old forms and we are remade as soil and nutrients and become part of trees, grasses, flowers, the air, and so on, why wouldn’t we become the spirits of these things? Why wouldn’t we grow in power, having become greater, more expansive, than we were as living humans?
As the legend goes, King Ólaf Geirstaða Álfr’s grave was disturbed (at his request), his head chopped off, and three objects stolen. These were given to a queen in labor and her newborn son, named Olaf for the previous king and the apparent reincarnation of his predecessor. But how could the dead dwell at their graves, bound to their physical forms, and yet be reincarnated? As St. Olaf himself says in the legend, “The soul cannot be in two places.” Or can it? One explanation for this would be to consider the belief in a multi-spirit soul complex. This is a feature of a number of religions around the world, including Heathenry. In Heathenry, a human’s identity is comprised of at least four spirits: the fylgja (the “follower,” which may take the form of an animal or human), the hamr (the “shape” or “skin” spirit, which gives us our physical forms), the hugr (“thought,” or what we consider our minds), and the hamingja (“luck”). Some of these may be passed on to others, such as the fylgja and hamingja, in a form of reincarnation. In the example of King Ólaf Geirstaða Álfr above, St. Olaf may have gained his hamingja and possibly his fylgja through the ritual dismemberment of the elder and the conferring of gifts to the younger at birth. Meanwhile, the hamr, being the body-soul, would transform and break down in death, becoming part of the earth and the nutrients that feed new life. It would still exist, of course, but in a new form. The fate of the hugr is more uncertain, but it’s possible that this is the part of the soul that continues its existence in the underworld, may be invoked through necromancy, and perhaps remains connected to the hamr in a more fluid way than it did in life.
From Death Comes Life
The world of the dead, the depths of the earth, is also the source of fertility. From a biological standpoint, that which is dead breaks down, becoming part of the soil, nourishing new life. Indeed, Hades-Pluto is the God of the Dead and the Underworld as well as a God of wealth in the form of land fertility and metals. For this reason, Marc also sees Ingui-Frea as the Barrow King and Reaper of Souls, as well as a God of fertility. I love this idea, the connection between harvest and death, fertility and decay. It so perfectly captures the seemingly conflicting but actually complementary mysteries of the earth.
Similarly, in eastern Europe, the rusalki are dead young women who drowned themselves and become powerful water spirits that bring rain, and therefore fertility, to the fields in spring and summer. Since the water became their graves, they would naturally become spirits of water. Elizabeth Wayland Barber records a Belarusian song:
I will lead the rusalki(110-111)
Into the green rye;
There in the green rye
The rusalki were sitting.
Ah, my little grain-spikes,
Like little trees [you are]…:
In the oven we’ll have pastries,
On the table we’ll have loaves.”
Yet, during Pentecost, the rusalki were furious and could ruin harvests, cause sickness, and spoil any work that was done during that sacred week (69-70). Villagers would carry wormwood and travel in pairs to avoid the wrath of the rusalki, and work was taboo during this season.
In Swedish Livonia (now Latvia), Thiess of Kaltenbrun was tried for heresy for claiming to be a werewolf. Interestingly, he also claimed that, as a werewolf, he and his colleagues would descend into Hell to steal back seeds of grain, livestock, and “the fruits of the earth” that witches had stolen (Wikipedia). This descent into a Christianized underworld was done for the benefit of their community.
The connection between death and fertility is ancient and universal. Wherever the dead go, that is the place where life-sustaining and wealth-generating riches emerge, both physically and spiritually. So it does us good to attend to the dead, to honor them, venerate them, and propitiate them. If we give, they may give back.
The Nature of Death
My personal beliefs regarding death are never static. As a living person, I acknowledge that I can’t really know what happens when life ceases. Still, I enjoy considering (and reconsidering) it, learning from others and working through my own rationale based on my experiences and worldview. At the moment, my current belief is that the body (i.e. the perceived form, or the hamr) and the spirit (i.e. the perceiving aspect, or the hugr) aren’t fully separable, although they may change their forms and functions. The body and the spirit are different aspects of the same essence, which is neither entirely one or the other. In death, our spirits would not be culled from our bodies, but they would not necessarily remain changeless. In death, we become different. We experience existence differently, perhaps more broadly. Our spirits can journey from our bodies, but remain tethered to them all the same. To quote John Donne in his poem “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”: we become “like gold to airy thinness beat.”
If the dead become a part of the places in which they are laid to rest — whether in barrows, in rivers or the sea, or in graves in cemeteries — their bodies breaking apart and joining the earth, the grass, the trees, the mountains and waters that embrace them, all gravesites become sacred ground. They are not merely places of deposition — places in which to lay down and forget our dead — but homes. They are places in which, when we visit, we can continue to feed and be nourished by our relationships with them. Gravesites deserve to be cared for, frequented, and enjoyed. They should be places that inspire warmth, love, and feelings of interconnection, while also allowing for the very natural feelings of grief that come with all transitions.
Unlinked Works Cited
Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance. W.W. Norton, 2013.
Davidson, Hilda R.E. The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature. Praeger, 1968.
Gaidin, Marc. Text message conversation. 16 Sept. 2021.
Orr, Emma Restall. The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature. Moon, 2012.
Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern mythology : comprising the principal popular traditions and superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and The Netherlands. Vol. 3. Lumley, 1852. https://archive.org/details/northernmytholog03thoruoft/page/n5/mode/2up.
Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash.