Memorials: Runestone to tombstone

I am writing this on Memorial Day, the day set aside to honor our dead, be they soldiers who’ve fallen in wartime, or ancestors buried in the family plot. Typically one places as marker a monument of stone inscribed with the names and dates of the departed to commemorate their lives and contributions. I recently drove to a Quaker cemetery in Indiana to check my mother’s gravestone. Yes, the date of her passing last year had been added to her stone, carved beneth a rose-crowned cross. Next to my mother lies my father, who pre-deceased her by almost 20 years. Above his name is carved an image of a fisherman, casting his line into celestial waters.

Had I been a Viking woman I might have commissioned a similar stone from a rune-master, with names to be chiseled in the ancient runic alphabet, Futhark (so called from its first six original letters). Stones with runic inscriptions can be found all over Scandinavia, as one might expect, but they also appear in places as far flung as Yugoslavia, Greece, the Orkneys, Greenland and Iceland – wherever Vikings lived and died. Over 200 such stones are found in Denmark; over 2,000 are scattered across Sweden – found in public places along roadsides, near bridges, on parish and farm boundaries, even near churches. The usual format is “X raised this stone in memory of Y.” Relationships are sometimes added, or mention of inheritances.

Most Swedish stones are decorated with elaborate serpentine forms which contain the runic inscriptions, such as the memorial stone  near a river at Ramsundsherget that says, “Sigrid, mother of Alrik, daughter of Orm, made this bridge for the soul of Holmgeir, her husband, father of Sigrod.”

The two famous stones outside a village church at Jelling, Denmark, include a small one set up by King Gorm in memory of his wife Thorvi, and a larger one, elaborately decorated, set up by their son Harald (known as “Blacktooth”) in memory of his parents. I visited Jelling one summer’s day in 2003, and traced my fingers lightly across the magnificent carvings on Harald’s sone, erected some time in the 900’s.

A few Swedish stones which commemmorate  men who died abroad contain verses, such as this one from Gripsholm: “They went gallantly / far for gold / and in the east / fed the eagle”  (i.e. were killed). The desire to remember – and to be remembered – transcends the ages.

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