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Archive for the tag “afterlife”

In Memoriam – of graveyards and mothers

A recent survey here in Sweden has concluded that a majority of Swedish people feel we should spread the ashes of those that have died in the great outdoors. A gust of wind and what little remains of a human after cremation would soar upwards, spread and eventually settle back on the ground.

No need, according to this survey, for headstones. No need for a little plaque engraved with the name of the recently deceased. Just this anonymous letting go and then the living can get back to their daily lives, the hole left behind by the deceased filled in by other things, other people.

20180406_180235I like walking in old churchyards. I stroll from headstone to headstone, read the names and the dates. In doing so, I remember that they once existed, even if they’re people I never knew nor have any connection with. When it comes to my own dead, I don’t have any headstones to visit. The lease on my great-grandparents’ plot was not extended in time, and one day my mother got a letter informing her that as there had been no extension, the remains of my great-grandparents and my maternal grandparents had been dug up and reburied in the common memorial grove. She took it rather badly. Even more so when we drove all the way up to her hometown to discover just how depressingly anonymous their new resting place was. Still, at least they had their names there.

My mother died recently, so the whole issue of headstone/plaque vs anonymous resting place has been up for discussion. We didn’t have a choice: my mother had left instructions and wanted her cremated remains to be put to rest anonymously in the same grove where my father’s ashes were interred twenty years ago.

20180406_180453Those that rest in this grove do so without names. Their ashes come in cardboard boxes and are buried by the churchyard staff so that no one knows exactly where their loved ones’ ashes ended up. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, a circular space bordered by a hedge and with a couple of very old trees that strive upwards to the heavens. It’s a stone throw’s distance from one of Malmö’s central squares, and so here the dead are surrounded by life, by the sound of laughter and music, of buses and cars. They may be anonymous, they may be forgotten, but somehow they’re still part of life. I like that. My mother would have liked that.

Us human beings are on this world for a very short time, and if we’re going to be honest, very few of us leave a legacy behind. Most of us are born, live and die in obscurity—which does not mean we don’t live life in full. It just means we’re like most people: too unimportant in the overall context of things, no matter how important we are to those that love us and are loved by us.

As we wander through old churchyards we may think all those who died in the past ended up with an engraved stone commemorating their existence. That is not true. Only those who could afford a mason could commission a headstone, and that means many, many people ended up in unmarked graves. In times of epidemics, war and disaster, people were buried in mass graves. No one carved their names on a headstone. They were simply gone.

Obviously, for those most affected by a death there is no need of a headstone to keep the memory alive. Children remember their parents for most of their lives, Grandchildren may remember their grandparents, but go one generation further down the line and there are no memories. There may be stories, little anecdotes shared from one generation to the other, but these are not necessarily representative of the person in question. It’s a bit like with history in general. We study the information that comes down to us and try to build a cohesive picture of the man/woman who lived ages ago based on entries in rolls and charters. However, what we get are details—not necessarily the truly important details—round which we try to recreate what that person might have been like.

mamma simone-martini-angel-gabriel_u-l-o2ohx0It is difficult to lose someone close to you. Losing a parent brings home that there is no IF about death, it is only a WHEN. Yes, we know that rationally, but we don’t feel it until it actually happens. With my mother’s passing, I am the eldest person in my original family. Reasonably, that makes me next in line. Not an entirely pleasant thought.

What is also difficult is handling the cocktail of emotions. It is especially difficult when the presumption is that as a daughter and a mother, my mother and I were very close and loving. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my mother and I am sure she loved me. But that does not mean the relationship was an easy one. In fact, for most of my adult life I have lived under a burden of expectations I have never quite lived up to, and that is very draining.

We are all a product of our lives and my mother was no exception. From the horizon of a fifty-plus woman, I can understand why she was as demanding as she was, her constant need for affirmation and attention a consequence of a difficult adolescence. I can understand that now, but I couldn’t quite understand it as a young woman when I mostly felt that no matter what I did, my mother was not entirely happy with me. She felt alone and abandoned. I juggled four children, a full-time job and a home, and still invited her over for dinner every weekend. But she was lonely all the other days as well and I went about with a constant burden of guilt.

Guilt is an interesting emotion. It steals so much energy that somewhere along the line it starts morphing into resentment. Years and years of not being quite good enough led to a certain distancing—it had to, as it hurt too much at times to be accused of being self-centred, of never having time for my mother, the person I owed everything to as she had given birth to me.

My mother’s last few years were bad years. She suffered from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and this is a cruel, cruel condition, leaving the afflicted constantly short of breath, constantly in a state of air-anxiety. Every breath is a conscious effort, every movement is a challenge. We did what we could. We tried to show her that we loved and cared—because we did, of course we did.

We wished she would let go, because with each day her suffering increased, but my mother was not a quitter. She clung to life with everything she had. She loved life, was worried that the alternative wouldn’t be much fun. So she fought tooth and nail to stay alive, she breathed and breathed and breathed, she looked at us with panic in her eyes and breathed some more.

Talking to her about death and an eventual afterlife was not an option at this stage. She was too scared, too angry. And yes, she took it out on us—as we all take things out on those we trust the most.

It was almost—no, I must rephrase—it was a relief when the doctors concluded there was nothing more to be done for our mother. Instead, she was transferred to palliative care.
“What do you think your mother would say if we asked her what she wants?” the doctor asked me.
“My mother?” I shrugged. “She wants to live. Don’t we all?”
“Her body doesn’t. Not anymore,” the doctor said. And as our mother was no longer all there, the doctor made the decision to stop with all invasive treatments and instead to help her die with dignity.

My mother died at home. She died wearing her favourite nightdress, lying in her own sheets with her favourite painting on the wall in front of her. For the last four days of her life there was no pain, no air-anxiety. There was only peace—and resignation. I believe she died feeling safe. I hope she felt she was being called home and that in those last moments she could give thanks for a long and fulfilling life.

mamma b79e66fca0cf0d38dbbe12df843a2e40Now my mother lies in an anonymous grove. In summer, the wind soughs through the trees, through the flowering shrubs. In winter, frost crackles in the grass and in the deep, deep winter night, the stars are like miniature diamonds in the distant sky. Where she is right now, I do not know. I hope she is at peace and that if there is an afterlife, she has run effortlessly through the rolling pastures into the arms of her waiting man.

Of divine sparks and serious talks

Chagall_Blauer_Engel_Blue_Angel_Bleu_HA1279_gVery many years ago, my mother and I were out walking. We did that a lot, she and I, and we would spend most of our standard circuit talking about this and that. That day, we were talking about faith. My mother grew up believing in God, but when she was fourteen, her mother fell ill with hepatitis, and six years later, after years of suffering, my grandmother died. My mother had major problems forgiving God. It was easier to decide He didn’t exist, than to accept He’d be cruel enough to subject someone to so much meaningless suffering. I guess that’s an argument people still find valid when discussing whether God exists yes or no: how can He, if He exists, turn a blind eye on the squalor, the misery, that blights this blue-green planet of ours?

Anyway, years went by, I was born, and one day I fell very sick – so sick my mother despaired of my life. For the first time in almost ten years she prayed, and even if she remains sceptical to the notion of me surviving due to a miracle, if nothing else that moment of desperation opened up a channel of communication between her and God that had been blocked for a very long time. She laughed a bit as she shared this with me, somewhat embarrassed, I believe, at talking about something as private as her faith.

These days, my mother is very ill, and I don’t think she finds much comfort in the notion of God or the hereafter. She is a firm believer in this life being the single most precious gift we get, no matter what comes later. I have no idea if she speaks to God – or rants at Him. Other than that time when we were out walking, we have but rarely touched upon the subject on a personal level.

We have, however, often discussed whether the generations that preceded us truly believed in God or simply chose to conform to expectations. Peer pressure is a powerful thing, and if seven out of ten people raise their fingers to point at a comet while yelling it is a divine portent, it is difficult to be among the three who consider it no more than an astronomic event.

Believing in God was a given in European societies a couple of centuries back. To voice an opinion that one didn’t, was to play with fire, and so those whose minds now and then touched upon the “what if He doesn’t exist” question generally chose to keep a low profile. A God-given order of things had a lot of benefits – especially for those who’d ended up at the top of that order. The priests, the nobility, the rich merchants – to them upholding the word of God, the promise of Heaven as a future reward for those who humbly accepted their lot in this life as servants and peasants, as serfs and underlings, had a lot going for it.

762px-John_Ball_encouraging_Wat_Tyler_rebels_from_ca_1470_MS_of_Froissart_Chronicles_in_BLWhen John Ball back in the 14th century had the balls (eh…) to question whether God truly intended things to be so unfair, with some having so much, other having so little, this caused a shudder of fear throughout the wealthy classes.
“When Adam Delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” John Ball asked, and people nodded and thought that was a very good question. So good, in fact, that suddenly there was a Peasants’ Revolt, the downtrodden arming themselves with pitchforks and spades and demanding their rights.

As we all know, this particular revolt didn’t achieve much – beyond scaring the daylights out of those who had everything to lose should the oppressed start questioning the fairness in the God-given order of things…Not that those loud peasants questioned God. They most certainly did not – God was a fixture of their world, an axiom. But here and there, the savvier among them began to ponder the question whether God truly did intend that some people should have it all while others scraped a living off a plot of land so barren children starved to death every year.

Martin_Luther_by_Cranach-restoration.tif (1)Some centuries later, along came Luther. Bam, bam, bam and he’d nailed his theses to Wittenberg’s Cathedral (only two years to go to celebrate 500 years since that oh, so festive occasion). Now, the important thing about all this was not so much (in my opinion) the theses as such, no matter how much they criticised such deplorable activities as selling indulgences and the like. Nor is the truly important thing the division of Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism. No, the single most important contribution of Luther to all of us was that he insisted people had to learn to read (not so much write). Why? Because Martin Luther preached that all men – and women – had to read the Bible so as to find their faith.

One of the main buttresses of the Protestant Church is that faith, and faith alone, paves the way to heaven. You can do umpteen good deeds a day, but unless you have faith, St Peter will wag his finger at you and not allow you across the threshold to those rolling green meadows beyond. (If we’re going to be picky, Protestant heaven doesn’t really have St Peter, seeing as Protestants don’t hold with saints, even if we still celebrate quite a few of them – but discreetly, like)

Protestant rulers therefore encouraged schools – boys and girls were taught to read their Bible and the Catechism. Thing is, people start reading, and suddenly they discover there is other stuff to read. A lot of stuff. For those keen on promoting a political or religious platform, people’s literacy was a major boon. Instead of having to talk to all and sundry, one could write a pamphlet or two, print them and distribute them. The PR profession was born, so to say.

“I still think they believed in God, though,” my mother would say when we discussed this. “In a world so full of hazards, of children dying young, of plagues and famine, God must have been something to hold on to – a hope that somewhere down the line there’d be justification for all this suffering.” She’d smile sadly. “Sometimes, I can envy them their faith. It was rock-solid, the base upon the world as they saw it was built on.”

GIIA Battle_of_LutzenHmm. I imagine quite a few developed a cynical approach to God. All those soldiers who fought first for one side, then the other, in the Thirty Years’ War, for example. Both sides claimed they had God on their side, both sides won – and lost – and won – and lost. Squeezed in between were the civilians, first pillaged by one side, then the other. Did they truly believe in God? Or did they screech in rage, wondering what sort of God allowed this to happen to good, hardworking people?

Religion (which is not necessarily the same thing as God – at times, God probably groans out loud at stuff that’s done in His name – assuming He does exist, assuming He does groan) has always been an excellent tool for repression. In most European countries, Conventicle Acts were introduced during the 17th century, laws that had as their purpose to define just what Church the populace was allowed to belong to. In Sweden, one could only be a Lutheran, member of the Swedish Lutheran Church. Foreigners who were Catholic were tolerated for diplomatic reasons, but woe betide the little Swede who one day woke up and decided they really needed the Virgin Mary in their lives. Anathema, blasphemy – and in itself sufficient to have you accused of heresy. If found guilty, there was only one outcome: death.

In England and Scotland, Charles II’s ministers introduced the Clarendon Code which essentially was a more complex version of a Conventicle Act. As per this legislation, one could belong to the Church of England. Full stop. Well, if you wanted to be a Scottish Kirk member, fine – as long as you recognised the king as head of your church. The Scottish Kirk has no head other than God. The more practical aspects of managing the church is handled by a General Assembly. Obviously, the Clarendon Code led to a fraught relationship between the Lowland Scots who were firm members of the Kirk, and those pesky ministers in London (The one thing they agreed on, the Anglicans and the Presbyterians, was that lowest of low were the Highland Catholics. Well: all Catholics)

Conventicle Acts attempted to monopolise God – something that must have amused Him as He relaxed in a cloudbank up there, somewhere. In the long run, Conventicle Acts didn’t work, and one by one the various European countries did away with these laws. I am not proud to share that Sweden was among the last countries to repel these laws, somewhere in the 1870s. In church, Swedish men and women would sing “A Mighty Fortress is our God” (penned by Martin Luther, no less) and the question was if it was a protective fortress or a repressive fortress…

These days, Sweden is one of the most secularised societies in the world. In fact, most of Northern Europe is pretty relaxed when it comes to God nowadays. No one really takes Him seriously. These days, a person expressing a belief in God may expect to be met with a condescending little smile. Our modern world is ruled by facts, by things we can prove. There is a risk, of course, that such a world leaves us spiritually starved. After all, belief in God, in something greater than us, has inspired some of the most impressive expressions of human creativity. Cathedrals, paintings, music…an endless list of master artists who composed and designed and drew so as to honour that which cannot be seen or proved, but which must be taken on faith alone. Faith: a risible concept to many of us modern human beings…

Except, of course, that modern man does have gods. Where before it was blind faith and lack of knowledge that restricted our thinking, these days an almost religious approach to science sets the boundaries for what we may – or should – believe in. Peer pressure is as hale and hearty now as it was then, and so those who do believe in God rarely voice it, not wanting to expose themselves to ridicule.

Adam 1280px-Adam_na_restauratiePersonally, I believe there is more to us humans than the bones and flesh and blood and tendons and all that yucky stuff between our ears. We have it in us to rise above ourselves, to become more than the sum total of our parts. A divine spark? Yes, I think so. Or maybe I just hope so. After all, I am sucker for those Sunday school pictures of lambs and lions lying side by side in verdant pastures – one of them is surely Aslan, right? Besides, I am assuming that God, if he exists, has one mean chocolate cake waiting for me on the other side. I guess I’ll have to wait until I’m dead to find out. Not that I’m in any hurry to do so, because if there’s one thing I wholeheartedly agree with my mother on, it is that this life is the icing on the cake, the most precious gift we’ll ever get. Is it always easy? No. Is it always fair? Definitely not. But it is life, that roaring in your veins, that thudding in your heart that confirms that right now, right here, you exist. Not a bad thing, all in all.

It’s a man’s world

…or so, at least, Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar must have reasoned when she decided to leave her feminine self behind and instead become a man. And not any old man, either, no Ulrika Eleonora decided to go all in and become a soldier.

Okay, so none of the above is truly remarkable in this day and age, but rewind the clock (drastically) to the first few decades in the 18th century, and we are looking at a scandal in the making. You see, it was a crime for a woman to don menswear. And as to impersonate a man, well an adequate response would be a shrill “off with her head” – except that this was no make believe world starring a Mad Hatter, a lost girl and a rabbit hole.

Ulrika Eleonora madame-de-pompadour2

What an 18th century noblewoman should look like (Mme Pompadour herself…)

Ulrika Eleonora had an impeccable pedigree: she was of noble birth, her father was an officer, her grandfather had been an officer, her older brothers were officers, and her sisters were nice and ladylike the lot of them. Unfortunately, while Ulrika Eleonora’s father seems to have been a capable officer, he was less than successful when it came to managing his financial situation, and when he died, Ulrika Eleonora and her five sisters found themselves in the unenviable situation of being poor as church mice and dependent on the goodwill of their relations to survive.

For a young, destitute noblewoman, the only solution was marriage – often to someone “beneath” her. In the early 18th century, the young destitute noblewomen rarely got a say in who they were married to, and Ulrika Eleonora watched one sister after the other end up in unhappy marriages, at the beck and call of their spouses. Not a fate Ulrika Eleonora wanted to share, and besides, time was passing and men weren’t exactly queuing up to marry this young woman who rode and shot better than most men, and who was unfashionably loud and borderline long in the tooth (after all, the lady was going on thirty, almost ancient…)

Ulrika Eleonora svensk soldat

What an 18th century woman should NOT aspire to

We don’t know what incident pushed Ulrika Eleonora to act, but in the spring of 1713, she requested her papers from the local priest (one couldn’t travel without papers confirming your identity), bid her sisters farewell, and set off for Stockholm in search of a better life. Her sisters were mildly scandalised: a young woman travelling alone was not the done thing. Imagine just how shocked they would have been had they known that no sooner had Ulrika Eleonora waved them goodbye, but she took off for a secluded spot where she exchanged skirts and petticoats for men’s breeches, a coat and  sturdy shoes. Ulrika Eleonora was no more: instead, here was young Wilhelm Edstedt – carrying papers identifying him as Miss Stålhammar…

No one asked to see the papers. Wilhelm arrived safe and sound in Stockholm and quickly sank to the bottom of the social pecking order. Miss Stålhammar was a someone – however impoverished. Wilhelm was a nobody, with no contacts, no previous work experience – and the added disadvantage of lacking a male member, which required circumspection. How Wilhelm managed to survive is an open question, but at some point his/her good breeding paid off, and Wilhelm was employed as a footman. Not the future Wilhelm had envisaged, but at least it gave him room and board.

Ulrika Eleonora Regementets_Kalk

How many of these were undercover women?

One employment led to another, and in 1715, Wilhelm was at last able to achieve his dream. He joined an artillery regiment in Kalmar, a small city well to the south of Stockholm. Wilhelm was to serve with his regiment for eleven years, and I wonder just how he/she could keep his/her real identity a secret for so long. After all, soldiers tend to live cheek to jowl, and at some point even Wilhelm would have needed to relieve himself…

Even more reckless was Wilhelm’s decision to marry. In 1715, he met a young maid called Maria Lönman, and whether or not it was true love from Wilhelm’s side, he/she set out to woo Maria. Maybe it started as an attempt to act like a “normal” man, but as the months went by, Wilhelm seems to have developed feelings for Maria. He wrote her letters, he courted her assiduously, and in 1716 Wilhelm proposed, was accepted, and married his Maria.

Umm…Did Maria know she was marrying a man in disguise? According to what she said later, she didn’t. If so, how was Wilhelm planning on addressing the whole issue of taking his new bride to bed? Turns out Maria had been brutally assaulted some years back, so when Wilhelm expressed a certain reluctance vis-a-vis intimacy, she was mostly relieved. And curious, one imagines, so curious that Wilhelm some weeks after the marriage, broke down and told Maria the truth.

His wife heard him out, did some hand-twisting and pondering, and decided the best course of action was to do nothing – she liked her “husband” well enough, and I also suspect she found it more than embarrassing to explain to her relatives that her wedding had been a farce.

For ten years, Wilhelm and Maria lived in apparent harmony. Their pastor was later to say that rarely had he encountered such a devout and virtuous couple, and both Maria and Wilhelm vehemently denied ever having had carnal knowledge of each other. Whether this was true or not, I have no idea –  but it was probably a wise move to deny it.

Ulrika Eleonora 800px-Gustaf_Cederström_-_David_och_GoliathBack in 1713, Ulrika Eleonora had written one of his sisters. Elisabet Katarina,  and told her she was living as Wilhelm Edstedt. There seems to have been no contact between the sisters after that date, but sometime 1725 or so, Wilhelm received a letter. He recognised the handwriting, and in my mind’s eye, I see him turning it over, one part of him wanting to tear it open, the other not sure if he should read it at all. Curiosity won out, and with some trepidation, Wilhelm settled down to read Elisabet’s letter.

Somehow, Elisabet Katarina had found out that Wilhelm had married, and she was beyond livid: how could her irresponsible sister drag an innocent woman into the mess she’d made of her life? What did Ulrika Eleonora think would happen if they were found out? And how could she be so selfish as to condemn Maria to a life of pretense?

The letter was like a festering boil. Wilhelm tossed and turned through the nights, he decided to resign from the army, did some more tossing and turning, and sometime later, Wilhelm came to the conclusion it was time to revert to being Ulrika Eleonora – with the picturesque addition of a wife. Major problem number one…

Major problem number two was that Ulrika Eleonora had – in the eyes of her contemporaries – committed a heinous crime. As per the law, there was only one punishment possible. Death. Not, I suppose, an entirely palatable alternative for ex-Wilhelm, now firmly back in skirts.

Fortunately, Ulrika Eleonora had an aunt. This aunt with the rather impressive name Sofia Drake (eg Sofia Dragon) had a vested interest in keeping the name Stålhammar unsoiled – for the sake of her dead husband and her own children. Reluctantly, she offered to help – not only Ulrika Eleonora, but also Maria, who by all accounts received a much warmer welcome than her erstwhile “husband”. Consensus was that Maria had been sinned against – the sinner being that irresponsible and head-strong Ulrika Eleonora. In fact, Lady Sofia went out of her way to help Maria find a position as a housekeeper, while it seems she had major problems offering her niece anything but a dutiful and decidedly cool welcome.

Ulrika Eleonora Frederick_I_of_Sweden

Fredrik I

Sofia Drake advised Ulrika Eleonora to go to Denmark and write a grovelling letter to the king, Fredrik I, begging forgiveness for the sins she’d committed in “youthful despair”. Hmm. she was pushing thirty at the time of her original transformation into Wilhelm…However, grovelling letters tend to help, and Ulrika Eleonora was invited back to Sweden and allowed to stay with her aunt while waiting for her day in court.

Being of noble birth, Ulrika Eleonora had assumed her case would be fast-tracked to the higher courts, bypassing local magistrates. Not so. Instead, Ulrika Eleonora and Maria were brought before the magistrates in Kalmar. Six days of intrusive question – and at one point Ulrika Eleonora was subjected to a thorough physical examination to ensure she was a woman. The midwives charged with verifying her gender also confirmed she had never given birth. Neither had Maria…

After these initial formalities, the trial focused on Ulrika Eleonora and Maria’s sexlife. At the time, homosexuality was a crime (labelled sodomy, which didn’t quite apply in this case, but even 18th century judges had enough imagination to visualise two women in bed), so maybe it is no wonder that the ladies repeated over and over that yes, they loved each other deeply, but that their feelings were platonic. In fact, neither of them had ever felt any desire to engage in sexual acts. The court was not entirely convinced, but there was nothing to prove, and what witnesses were found generally agreed that Ulrika Eleonora a.kl.a. Wilhelm and Maria had had a loving but virtuous relationship.

The Kalmar magistrates came to the conclusion the two women had committed a crime and should be punished – but they couldn’t find any guidance as to how they should be punished, and so they turned the whole case over to the educated lawmen of Göta Hovrätt – the next judicial level.

The lawmen didn’t take all that long to make up their minds:the crime was punishable by death, as supported by Deuteronomy 22:5:
The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.
I dare say Ulrika Eleonora swallowed repeatedly. Many, many times.

However, the lawmen in their mercy decided to commute the punishment to 30 days on bread and water, to be followed by public penance at Church before being exiled from the town of Kalmar. Well, compared to being hanged, this seems a walk in the park, but Ulrika Eleonora was not happy. 30 days on only bread and water equaled borderline starvation. Yet another letter was sent off to the king, who decided to allow Ulrika Eleonora full prison rations (woo hoo!) while reducing Maria’s sentence to 8 days – after all, the poor girl had been tricked…

After their respective punishments in 1730, Maria and Ulrika Eleonora parted ways. Maria was to become a much appreciated servant in Lady Sofia’s household, while Ulrika Eleonora was given little choice in her future life – she was hastily passed off to an elderly female relative who lived as a recluse out in the woods. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

At the time, Ulrika Eleonora was pushing fifty, with no income, no assets – nothing but the permanent stain of shame that marked her in the eyes of her exasperated family. None of her sisters seem to have offered to take her home – but then, that may have been all those obnoxious husbands who put their feet down. And as to her brothers, imagine the horror with which they learnt that their sister had dragged the family name through the mud – by impersonating a man and becoming a petty officer, no less.

Ulrika Eleonora died three years later. In the intervening period, she had not been allowed to see Maria, and we don’t know if this caused her sorrow. I would assume it did – in hindsight those ten years and more she lived as Wilhelm with Maria at her side must have seemed the happiest in her life. After all, Ulrika Eleonora did inhabit a man’s world – a society in which women were, by law, reduced to being nothing more than their closest male relative’s burden and chattel.

Ulrika Eleonora is not the only woman to dress up as a man and go to war. There are plenty of other examples in Sweden – and in England, Ireland, well, a bit all over. Many of these women were executed – dear old Moses had made it quite, quite clear that cross-dressing was a major no-no. Many more were probably never discovered, and their stories will never be heard, their names by now forgotten – a fate they share with like 99,9% of all those that went before us…

Dying the good death

Us modern people have little exposure to death. Gone are the days when people lived cheek to jowl with their grannies and great.grannies, and so the first exposure most of us get to death is when our parents die. A sort of “wake up and smell the coffee” moment, as it brings home the inevitable fact that first we live, then we die. Of course, many live through the harrowing experience of seeing a child/sibling/loved one die well before they should, but in general, death is at a once remove, a sanitized end-of-life procedure we don’t want to know too much about.

It’s not that long ago since death was very integrated in our everyday life. First of all, because more people died younger – of disease, of war wounds, in childbirth – but also because generation lived close together. To our forebears, death was as normal as birth, another sequence in the endless circle of life. I guess it helped that most of our forebears probably did believe in an afterlife – although some of the grimmer depictions of hell everlasting did not exactly paint a comforting picture.

For the people of the past it was not so much the dying but the manner in which you passed that was important. There were good deaths and bad deaths, and of course everyone wanted a good death. Thing is, this good death thing varied with culture and time.

Walhall_by_Emil_DoeplerShould we drop by the Vikings, we find a people for whom “sotdöden” – death by disease, in bed – was something to avoid at all costs. Viking men did not get runestones raised in their memory if they departed this world in their sleep. No, these Nordic ancestors of mine wanted to die the true warrior’s death, thereby guaranteed a place in Valhalla. This is why Viking warriors were so reckless and determined in battle: there was no greater honour than to die with your sword in your hand, thereby inspiring songs and long, rhymed verses called “kväden”.

At times the male Vikings were accompanied by shield maidens on the battlefield, even if most of the time the women were left at home to take care of the farm and the kids and the ageing parents and the animals and the…These women probably died of exhaustion – in their beds. I still think they made it to Valhalla and the repetitive feasting on poor Särimner, the boar who was slaughtered every night and reborn the next day only to be slaughtered in time for the next dinner party.

The Vikings had a bit of a problem with Christ. What, a hale man in his best years and with long, flowing hair – vikings liked long, flowing hair – meekly allowed some barelegged wimps in short tunics to nail him to a cross? Where was his fighting spirit, hey? This is why us Scandinavians clung to our picturesque traditions such as the mid-winter blot well into the eleventh century. The mid-winter blot was one long bacchanalian party, complete with too much mead and the blood-sacrifices of everything from roosters to men (only male victims allowed).

Anyway, once the Scandinavians embraced Christianity, they became members of the Holy Church, like most of their fellow Europeans. Now the Church preached that a good death was a prepared death, i.e. the soon-to-be-dead person spent an adequate amount of time preparing for the afterlife, by praying, giving away their possessions and in general turning from their worldly lives to a contemplative one. I suppose this worked when people took time dying – and preferably not in some horrible contagious disease. Otherwise, this good death had as its main drawback that most of the time it is difficult to plan for your death unless you’re considering suicide. But to commit suicide was a major, major no-no as per the Church, so any spiritual preparation in advance was a total waste of time anyway. (Other cultures have an opposite view; take the Japanese and their ritual harakiri)

Fortunately – especially given the fact that the spread of Christianity had not exactly brought about world peace, rather the reverse – the church considered that those who died in battle also died good deaths. If you were hacked to death on a battlefield, you were to some extent forgiven for not having had the time to fix final absolution and all that. I would argue that those who were hacked to death while in battle suffered a better death than the poor sods who were “just” grievously wounded, and therefore transferred to the tender care of the field surgeons. Oh, dear, oh dear… this was NOT a good death.

Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_CrécyImagine you’re a knight in the 14th century. You’ve yelled yourself hoarse at the battle of Crecy, and after the battle has been safely won, your companions find you in the field and carry you to the nearby surgeon. You have an arrowhead lodged in your thigh, and that last encounter with the desperate French knight and his panicked destrier has resulted in your chainmail having been trampled into your flesh. The surgeon will start by attempting to dislodge the arrow. That will hurt. It will hurt even more when he pours boiling oil over the wound to cleanse it. If you’re lucky, you’ll faint at this point, because when the surgeon starts dislodging the chainmail from your flesh, chances are your skin will be pulled off as well, causing bleeding wounds that will probably fester within the coming days, leaving you to die in fever and pain. As I said, not a good death. On the upside, you could be lucid enough to partake of last rites, thereby converting this potentially very bad death into a tentatively good one – at least from a spiritual perspective.

In general, the vast majority of deaths were not good. Dying of the plague – as approximately 40% of the European population did in the 14th century – was not a good death. So much panic did the spreading plague engender that those who could (like Boccaccio) fled the cities for the safer countryside. The plague left entire cities devastated, Florence, as an example, was left so underpopulated that it took until the 19th century before the entire area encircled by the 14th century walls was yet again inhabited.

Dying in childbirth was pretty grim – but it did come with the benefit of potentially allowing the dying woman the comfort of last rites. Dying as a heretic was not much fun – being set on fire rarely is, plus there was the further downside that as a heretic you’d die unshriven.

Avvakum_by_MyasoyedovBeing executed was a bad death. There was an element of sport involved, and the good executioner made sure to extend the fun for the watching public.  The poor sod being executed had no say in the matter, but chances are he was far more worried about what would happen after death. In a deeply religious society, it caused considerable anxiety to realise your bodily parts would be chopped off  and displayed in various parts of the kingdom, thereby guaranteeing you’d be an arm or a leg short when the Day of Resurrection dawned.

Most of us don’t need to worry about dying like our medieval ancestors. Chances of us being struck down by the plague are slim, and as to being burned at the stake, well we don’t do much of that anymore, do we? Dying in war, however, remains one of the more common causes of human demise. However sad and futile, we still send our children off to fight. Often the cause as such is good – or so we believe. And like mothers and fathers throughout history, we seek comfort in the cause when our child is returned to us dead. A good death? I think not.

No, chances are most of us will die in bed. Thanks to modern medicine, we will be spared pain at the moment of our passing. A good death in our society, a terrifying, shameful death for those ancient Vikings who wanted to make it to Valhalla and feast on the same old, same old, night after night. Few of us will call for last rites, having relegated the idea of an afterlife to the realm of fantasy and wishful thinking. And yet…Are we not more than the collection of skin and bone, blood and flesh, that make up our bodies? Isn’t there in all of us some sort of divine spark? Or is that simply me, not quite capable of getting my head round the terrifying concept that one day I will be no more? I don’t know.

I do know, however, that at some point we will all die. I guess all of us aspire to a good death, and for me that means dying with someone holding my hand. And maybe a view of the sky. And as to the afterlife, either it is or it isn’t, and whatever the case there’s very little we can do about it. Personally, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for green meadows dotted with daisies. And lambs. He who liveth – or dieth, in this case – shall see…

Fear of Dying

Marc_Chagall_L_180Ange_BleuSeveral years ago, when I was still a child, my single greatest fear wasn’t that I was going to die – it was that my mother would. At the time, I was young enough to consider myself more or less immortal – life extended before me as an endless sea. But I was old enough to have grasped that at some point in time, that endless sea would sort of shrink into a puddle, a most finite expanse of water.

My mother mostly laughed when I padded into her bedroom, crying that I didn’t want her to die. “I’m not planning on dying yet, honey,” she would say, and comforted by her presence I’d fall asleep in her bed, secure in the knowledge that she’d be here tomorrow too.

Tomorrows pass quickly. It is no longer quite as certain that my mother will be here tomorrow. It raises issue – topics that are difficult to discuss when one is in the best of health, are touchy, toothy things when the “if” of dying has converted into a fast approaching “when”.

I suppose this is when having strong faith bolsters the fragile human soul. The concept of a hereafter, a reassurance that all will not end when we suck in that last gasping breath, is a lifeline to those among us who simply cannot get their heads around the “not existing” part.

800px-Starry_Night_Over_the_RhoneSince man first began walking upright, the questions of where we come from and where we go to have been rebounding in our brains. Primitive man stood outside his cave and gawked at the stars overhead, wondering if perhaps that was where we came from. Some not so primitive men still hold to the rather odd notion that we are the offspring of an alien race, sent down from a distant galaxy to colonise Earth. Hmm…

As our Stone Age ancestors followed the herds of big game from one location to another, they told each other stories. I bet already back then many of the stories were girl-boy stories, I bet quite a few featured handsome broody young man in a loincloth who has problems expressing his feelings (he’s vulnerable within his shell, you see) until SHE comes along, all tight mammoth skin and dreadlocks decorated with knucklebones. Misunderstandings, heartbreak, separations and reunions follow…. Yes, yes. You get it, right? Besides this particular story is most hale and hearty even now, several millennia later, except that these days broody and handsome is an unhappy millionaire with a dark background and she has lost the mammoth skin in favour of lacy underwear and designer heels.

But apart from the light entertainment offered by timeless rom-com, these flint wielding ancestors of ours also spoke of existential issues. How do we know? Because of the way they buried their dead, preparing them for a journey to the hereafter. All over the planet, our very distant ancestors seem to have found it necessary to bury tools and clothes with their loved ones. At times a faithful dog or horse is included as well, at more gruesome times the companions include other humans, seemingly killed for the express purpose of accompanying Mr Number One to the afterlife.

These days, we have a predilection for cremation, which might make things difficult should Resurrection Day ever come – assuming you subscribe to the version where the dead rise from their graves. These days, we rarely send along a dog or a bagel. Should there be a life after death, we assume dear departed will fix the sustenance thing by themselves.  But even in these days, we still wonder; what comes after death?

Personally, I believe humans are more than their flesh and blood. The thoughts we have, the experiences and memories, our dreams and ambitions – surely they add to the total mass of who we are. Does all that disappear? Is there a whispered “poof” as everything intangible that made a person into a specific person is erased – for ever? Or is it this cognisance, this collection of half-formed thoughts, of remembrances and hopes that constitute our soul, and if so, does it float off to a HEA moment? Deep shit, isn’t it?

My mother and I have rarely spoken about faith. I know that once my mother believed very deeply in God, but that she never quite forgave Him for allowing her mother (my grandmother) to lie abed for years, slowly shrinking into nothing, before she died. I also know that for years my mother kept radio silence vis-à-vis God – until the day when I hovered so close to death that she clasped her hands and prayed for my life. That time, it seemed God listened – or maybe it was the doctors who saved me. I wouldn’t know, being too young at the time to have anything more than the haziest recollections of lying in a tent filled with ice. Whether this event led to a reopened conversation with the God of her youth, I don’t know. The issue of faith is far too personal for me to pry.

Now and then, my mother will make the odd sarcastic comment about the hereafter. “I’m not so thrilled at the thought of wafting about as an amorphous spirit,” she said once. “I mean, what’s the point of an afterlife if I can’t hug and kiss the people I love?” Which is when I realised that my mother and I have a great deal in common, starting with a romantic streak that hopes that there will be opportunity to love – in the full sense of the world – on the other side as well.


Like souls, rising towards the sky

I think the problem with dying is not the actual dying part, it is the not knowing part. Us modern humans don’t like it when we’re not in control of our destination – and this is definitely one of those occasions, isn’t it? I suspect it was easier to die some centuries ago. First of all, because everyone had at some point or another seen somebody else die, while to us this is mostly a process draped in the shrouds of hospitalised care. Secondly, because at the time no one had as yet begun to question the existence of an afterlife – at least not openly. Going to heaven (or hell, gulp) was a truism, sort off.

All of us will die – someday. But until we do, let’s make sure our tomorrows count. Life is a gift, and whether finite or not, the one thing we know for certain is that THIS life, THIS moment will never return. A wasted minute can never be recouped and used again later, a day spent bemoaning the downsides of things is one day less to praise the joy of living.

When I die, I want there to be someone I love beside me. Someone who holds my hand and croons me gently out of life and into the unknown. And when I am truly gone, I want that someone to open a window so as to allow my soul to soar into the never-ending deep blue of the star-strewn skies.

450px-Campanula_rotondifolia (1)As to what comes after, well as one formidable lady in my acquaintance once said, “I have no idea what will happen after death. The only thing I know is that I will be taken care of – somehow.” Not a bad thought, hey? I mean, either there is God and his angels, and rolling green meadows and gambolling lambs (I have a very traditional view of heaven) and it will be happy days ever after. Or there is nothing, in which case it won’t matter. We will simply sink into universal oblivion and if we’re lucky our body (or our ashes) may one day be reborn – as harebells in the sun!


Seven sins that pave the highway to hell


Bosch – the seven deadly sins

There are seven deadly sins. Those of you who have attended Catholic schools, will probably know them by heart – or maybe you don’t, because you spent Divinity class doodling rather than listening. The rest of you may have only the vaguest of notions as to what I’m on about, but some of you will remember the movie “Seven” and shudder.

Originally, the deadly sins denominated transgressions that led straight to hell – unless the sinner repented and did penance, of course. Nowadays, we have to a large extent done away with the concept of hell. Priests will squirm and mutter that hell is probably more a question of being banished from God’s presence, than being punished for an eternity. Not quite as deterring, if you ask me, but if you want people to come to church these days, you’d best avoid speaking too much about such off-putting things as hell – actually, best avoid raising the concept of death and its aftermath altogether, as us modern people prefer to ignore the fact that our lives are finite and short.


Rather lustful…Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time by Bronzino

Back to the sins. Wrath, greed, pride, lust, envy, gluttony and sloth – are they at all applicable today? Okay, okay; that was a stupid question. It takes but a peek around to realise that these deadly sins thrive in our modern world. Not that we’d agree that all of them are sins – lust, for example, is an instinct rather than a sin, right? Greed is a motivator, and envy, well, how can we call a feeling so many of us experience a sin? That would qualify all of us as sinners. Most of us will agree that sloth is a sin – lazy people don’t contribute to society – and wrath is probably a sin as well, because angry people are a bit scary, and these days, angry people might very well be toting a gun or a knife, and so wrath can lead to murder, and killing someone is definitely a sin – it says so in the Ten Commandments.

Do I feel envy? Often. Do I succeed in converting that envy to a genuine congratulation or compliment? Rarely. But I do try – sometimes. I can, however, pat myself on the back when it comes to wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth. (I have decided an over-consumption of chocolate does not qualify as gluttony, it’s more of a necessity) Greed? Not really an issue. Pride? Hmm. Let’s just say that a number of tumbles have brought home the lesson that boastful pride generally comes back to bite you – where it really, really hurts.

Jacques Callot devil musketeers

Jacques Callot: Devil musketeers

The seven deadly sins as a concept date back to the very early Christian period. These sins were considered especially serious as they would often lead to other vices, thereby corroding the fragile soul further. The soul was a big thing back then. It would continue to be a big thing throughout the coming centuries. People would die to keep their souls unblemished. They’d suffer death at the stake rather than renege on their beliefs, so convinced were they that only by holding to their concept of the true faith would their soul rise untarnished to heaven.

These days, the immortal soul is a concept very many dismiss as being archaic. And as there is no way to prove there is an afterlife, modern man to a large extent prefers to gamble on the fact that this life is all we get, so who cares about sins and stuff? Life is at times reduced to a ridiculous competition along the lines that he/she who amasses the most (or becomes the most famous) wins. And then what? You die disgustingly rich and it benefits you how?


Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Sloth

For the ancient Christians, the deadliest of the seven sins was sloth – Acedia in Latin. Not sloth along the lines “Oh, I can’t be arsed to get out of bed today”, but sloth in the sense of not bothering to fortify their faith on a daily basis to protect and develop their soul. Hands up all of those that invest time on a daily basis to develop your spiritual state…No, these days most of us are too busy with our hectic everyday life to find the time to do so – unfortunately.

What is interesting about these seven sins is that they are all about combating our baser instincts. Yes, lust is an instinct, but giving in to it can at times be a sin. To view your neighbour’s brand new BMW through the green-tinted glasses of envy is probably quite natural – but to rise above it and sincerely congratulate her on her new hot wheels, buttresses our souls (Key word here is sincerely, okay? Otherwise you’re committing a venial sin by lying. I know, I know; something of a bummer). Greed may very well be a motivator – but where does the dividing line go between the desire to become wealthy enough to make your own destiny and amassing riches at the expense of others? To work at your sloth (!) is to take responsibility over your life, to not succumb to the red-hot rage that pounds through your blood is to behave as a mature adult. In conclusion, by trying to avoid these seven sins, we become better people – more generous, more productive, more controlled and, hopefully, more content.

Whether or not you believe in God, most of our Western societies have their roots in Christian beliefs. Our codes of law are to a large extent influenced by the ancient rules encoded in The Ten Commandments – simply because these rules make it so much easier for us humans to get along. It does not bode well for the future survival of a society, if we allow people to steal and kill. It creates major animosity if people sleep around with other partners than their own. The seven deadly sins are part of this normative code, but in difference to the commandments, the sins are all about us; you and me, and how we try to better ourselves by not giving in to temptation, at least not always.


Paradise and Hell by Bosch

In a world that spins increasingly faster, in a world where more and more people have to get along, where most of us are part of various complex social networks, it might make sense to breathe life into the old concept of the seven deadly sins. Not so as to load people with guilt and angst, but so as to make it easier for us all to rub along. It’s not as if the idea of controlling your anger, lust, greed, envy, pride, etc, is in any way controversial, is it? Besides, who knows; maybe there is an afterlife,  and maybe there even is a hell – an eternity being roasted over fire-pits, or having your liver hacked out as poor old Prometheus. Why risk ending up there, when the alternative sounds so much nicer? Give me the rolling meadows and the gamboling lambs of heaven any day. Oh; please throw in some good-looking angels, a plentiful supply of tea and masses of chocolate cake. What? All that cake comes close to gluttony? Oh dear, oh dear…

If I die …

Unfortunately, there’s no “if” about dying – it’s just a matter of when. And if you think about it, is the alternative all that palatable? Does anyone truly want to go on living and living while the creases and wrinkles deepen, the eyesight weakens and the joints swell up with arthritis? Or maybe we’re all hoping that soon (and it best be very soon) there will be fantastic replacement surgery to be had, a bit like reconditioning an old car.

“Aah, Mrs Belfrage, how nice to see you again.” The young male nurse smiles down at me. I have to squint to make out his face, not all that certain I’ve met him before. But he did say “again”, right? I shuffle towards him, gripping the handles of my walking frame hard.
He helps me into the lavender coloured pod-shaped bed. I lie down, he takes off my slippers, my glasses, my rings, adjusts the hospital gown (sorry; no major development in that area, they’re as un-sexy then as they are now) and runs a scanner up my hips, nodding as he verifies that the implant numbers match his data.
“Well, off we go then, hmm?” he says when he’s done and then he presses a flashing red button and I’m thrilled to bits the anesthesia works this time round as well – not like for poor Clara who was AWAKE, let me tell you, totally AWAKE during the whole process.
Six hours later I wake when someone shines a light in my eye.
“Well, well, Mrs B has come back to us,” the enervatingly chirpy male nurse says. Come to think of it, now I notice he isn’t all that young and when I give him a thorough look-over I’m not that sure it’s a he to begin with. Looks more like a she with a dismal haircut, and really, someone should tell him/her fuchsia is NOT his/her colour. I swing my rejuvenated legs out of the bed, stand and stretch. “Everything in working order?” the nurse coos.
“I think so. But I…” I break off to try out a tennis serve. “The elbow is a bit sore,” I frown. I do some toe bouncing, a couple of knee bends and finish off by adopting one of the more complex yoga postures.
Once I’ve completed the paperwork, the nurse accompanies me to the door.
“See you in a decade or so,” I say in lieu of farewell.
“Oh no, Mrs B, no, no, no. You know the rules.” She/he wags a finger at me. “Three times each, Mrs B, and then its over.” She/he fluffs at his/her hair. “No, in ten years it will be me in the pod.” He/she titters and flutters ridiculously long eyelashes at me. I want to ram something hard and sharp into his/her gut – in my opinion a very natural reaction when you’ve just been told you’re set on the narrow path ending in DEATH.

So why this fear of death? After all, it does seem relatively straightforward: we ‘re born, we live, we die. No one seems to have any issues with the being born part, but maybe that’s because we have no memories of what must be a pretty drastic experience. Quite a few have a fear of life – sadly – but the vast majority just get on with it, enjoying parts of it, shouldering on through others. And as we get older we shove the dawning realisation of impending old age and – gulp, gulp, gulp – death away from us by saying stuff like “the sixties are the new forties”. Ultimately, it doesn’t help. One day the bell will toll for everyone of us, and we have no idea where we will end up or even if we end up somewhere.

Maybe it’s just a total blank once we’re dead. Or maybe it’s not. There’s no one to ask, and taking leaps into the unknown on faith alone sits uncomfortably with most of us – at least in this day and age. And if you ask me, it’s not the being dead that scares us, it’s the process of dying that has our bowels cramping. Make it painless, please. And quick – yes, very quick.

When I die (and that is of course like in fifty years from now) I hope it is in bed and that there is a window that can be opened so that I can register the scents and sounds of bustling, heaving life. I wouldn’t mind it there was a remnant of daylight, the soft golden glow of a Nordic summer twilight. And I want someone there to ease my passing, a hand to hold on to as I begin the final fall from life. As to where I’ll end up, I’m an optimist. All that vibrant energy contained in a human soul can’t just dissipate into nothing, so something must be waiting on the other side of the great divide. I hope it’s green, rolling meadows and fluffy white lambs. I wouldn’t mind an angel choir or two, and if someone can make sure there’s tea and cake to go with it, I’ll be in total heaven.

Life is a wonderful gift. Maybe the glory of living lies in the insight that one day it’ll all come to an end. And should there be nothing after death, then maybe my ashes will suffice to make a bluebell or two grow and bloom. That’s not too bad, is it?

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