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Respect for the body

Everyone leaves a body behind at death which the living have a responsibility to give proper treatment to.

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A death at a Norwegian hospital is called mors. After the nurses have written a mors report and the doctor has dictated the death certificate, the nurses try to tidy up the room of the dead person. Medical equipment is removed, a white sheet is placed on the bed, the deceased receives a chin support and is laid down on the back with arms at the side. Clothing is removed, and the body is fully washed. Hair and nails are cared for, and if the deceased had any special wishes for burial clothing, these are put on before the body is swaddled in a white sheet. The family is often asked if they wish to participate in tending the dead person.

The family will often wish to care for the deceased, also after the nurses are finished. This can either be for religious reasons, or a wish to show consideration one last time. In Islam, the body of a dead Muslim must be turned towards Mecca and washed by a believer of the same sex. Ullevål hospital in Oslo has a room for care of the deceased that includes tile ornaments that show the correct orientation for Islamic rituals.

Ideas of the proper treatment and resting place of a dead person's body have varied in Norway the last to thousand years. Cremation, burial in burial mounds, burial under church floors, mausoleums, churchyards and graveyards have all been normal customs during different periods.

Should the dead body be sent "home" in one way or another?

When someone died at sea in former times, it was often impossible to preserve the body on board until reaching land. The captain or the ships priest led a memorial service, and the body was committed to the deep. The situation is different today, since nearly all modern ships have refrigerated rooms where the body may be preserved until the ship comes into harbor. The captains job is now to contact a local funeral agency in the port of arrival and find out if the relations of the deceased wish to have the body buried abroad or sent back to Norway for burial.

According to Islam, a Muslim must always be buried. Some choose burial in one of the Islamic cemeteries in Norwegian cities. Others are sent abroad for burial close to their families. For example, sending deceased to Pakistan is common, since inexpensive transport by direct flight is available twice a week from Oslo.

In 1888, a virulent debate occurred in Luthersk Ukeskrift (Lutheran Weekly writings) concerning the introduction of crematoria in Norway. Proponents argued that cemeteries in the cities were dangerous to the public health, due to the constant process of putrefaction which occur there. The proponents also felt that there were sizable social-economic savings in investing in crematoria. Ten years later, in 1898, the Norwegian parliament passed a law that allowed cremation.

The first crematorium in Norway opened in Bergen in 1907. Few people cremated their dead during the early years, but in Oslo today are around 80% of all deceased cremated. Modern cremation is done with electric or gas ovens that burn at ca. 900 degrees centigrade. The cremation process takes about an hour. Later, the ashes and any remaining bone material are ground together into a fine dust before being placed in an aluminum urn together with a ceramic mark that identifies the ashes.

While the first cremation debate was concerned only with public health, a media debate in 1951 deliberated whether cremation was theologically justified. Many believed that cremation was a heathen custom that Christians in Norway had turned their backs on 1000 years earlier, and was sinful according to the Bible. Others said that the Old Testament shows that burial is a Christian custom, but there is nothing in the Old Testament that forbids cremation. These argued that the New Testament abolished many of the Old Testament's ceremonial laws.

The Roman Catholic Church rescinded its ban on cremation in 1963. Orthodox Christianity has still not approved cremation.

Published Mar. 24, 2020 12:03 PM - Last modified Dec. 14, 2020 9:01 AM