Those who have read Kristin Lavransdatter, the epic trilogy by Catholic convert and Norwegian Nobel Prize winner Sigrid Undset, have read it at least twice. This formidable tale of farming and holy pilgrimages and family in the shadow of white-peaked mountains hurtles the reader into all the pain and love and last rites of death—death, and the hope of glory. Kristin Lavransdatter shoves a poker into the cold embers of our hearts, every page dry kindling, every chapter a gust of wind, until the flames are hot with the conviction that to die Catholic is to die in the bosom of God.
A violent confrontation with contemporary culture, Undset’s tale is a clarion reminder that to be human is to die. But ours is a culture that is Victorian when it comes to death, and the denial is increasingly morbid. This time, the skeleton in the closet is actually a skeleton. From vampire romances to abortion, from corpse-like models to pornography to zombie apocalypses, we are the walking dead. Youth is for sale, but the mortality rate is still 100 percent.
What of the Church in America? Awash in niceness, few dare to hold vigil for the deceased. Funerals are turned into “life celebrations.” Requiem masses have gone the way of the buffalo. Like everyone else, we outsource the care of our dying to specialists—Hey, I’m not the doctor!—diminishing opportunities for prayer, reconciliation, and goodbyes. The wake of Vatican II has stripped the laity of the once-familiar spiritual nourishment of Extreme Unction. And the so-called Healing Mass, where everyone receives a quick Anointing of the Sick before returning to the pew, leaves us wondering what kind of inward grace can be found in such a casual outward sign. Have we traded in the sacraments for such a pittance?
Kristin is a wake up call. By tracing the proud and beautiful character of Kristin through most of her life in fourteenth-century Norway, we are in fact tracing the human condition. The scenes are worth pausing over. Kristin’s is a story bursting with life precisely because it is set squarely in the vice-grip of death. But have we forgotten how to prepare for a holy death, how to grieve, how to die, how to pray for the dead, and in the process we have forgotten how to live? It is impossible to finish Undset’s tale without suspecting that something precious, something holy, has been lost to us. Have we willingly given up our birthright in exchange for soup?
Kristin encounters death for the first time when her childhood friend is slain. With a heart “as heavy as stone” she climbs the stairs to the loft where the body has been laid out:
The sound of hymns and the radiance of many lighted candles filled the doorway. In the center of the loft stood the coffin [her friend] had been brought home in, covered with a sheet. Boards had been placed over trestles and the coffin had been lifted on top. At its head stood a young priest with a book in his hands, singing. All around him people were kneeling with their faces hidden in their thick capes.
Her father lights a candle on the bier and kneels. The townsfolk are on their knees, repeating the priest’s prayers, their breath visible in the freezing death chamber. Kristin beholds the dead man’s face:
It was grayish-yellow like mud, and his lips were the color of lead; they were slightly parted so that the even, narrow, bone-white teeth seemed to offer a mocking smile. Beneath the long eyelashes could be seen a glimpse of his glazed eyes, and there were several bluish-black spots high on his cheeks that were either bruises from the fight of the marks of a corpse…. Kristin obediently leaned forward and pressed her lips to the dead man’s cheek. It was clammy, as if from dew, and she thought she could faintly smell the stench of the corpse; he had no doubt begun to thaw out in the heat from all the candles.
Days later, she will remember that face, “cold and hideous.” She remembers the open grave “waiting for a body…. The chopped-up lumps of earth lay on the snow, hard and cold and gray as iron.” It is then Kristin realizes that he is “dead and gone, and that she would never see his brave, handsome face or feel his warm hands again.”
The scene is one of mourning, but not of despair. The whole community has flocked to the coffin, kneeling, weeping—grief laid bare in the dark night. No one shrinks back from the thawing corpse. Death has opened its rancorous jaws, and they hold a lighted candle to it. Grief has rubbed their hearts raw, and they sing hymns. They do not grieve as people who have no hope.
Preparing for Death
Kristin will not kiss a corpse again until her father’s death. By then, she is a grown woman with many children of her own. Her father, Lavrans Bjørgulfsøn, is known for his strict fasts and harsh penances, his joy in worship and his generosity in tithes. Once a soldier and of noble lineage, he is an able hunter and farmer, a strong and gentle husband, and a father who is quick to forgive. Sensing he has only months to live, he takes a long walk with his daughter. Kristin notices that he carries his body more rigidly and carefully, “as if he bore some slumbering pain within and was moving quietly so as not to arouse it.” She begins to weep.
“It must be as God wills, Kristin,” he says. “I put my faith in God’s mercy. It’s not long that friends are parted.” Sobs shake Kristin’s body, and he holds her in his arms as he had when she was a child. “May God protect you, Kristin, my child, so that we might meet again on that day, all of us who were friends in this life … and every human soul. Christ and the Virgin Mary and Saint Olav and Saint Thomas will keep you safe all your days.” He takes her face in his hands and blesses her: “May God have mercy on you. May God grant you light in the light of this world and in the great light beyond.” He makes the sign of the cross over her again and again, and gives her into the care of God and the saints.
Months later, Kristin is upset to see his handsome features so faded, “like sallow on bone, and bloodless and pale around his lips and eyes … his body was so gaunt that it was little more than a skeleton.” Friends who want to see Lavrans one more time visit the manor: “He would talk in a merry and hearty voice to everyone—women and men, poor and rich, young and old—thanking them for their friendship and asking for their prayers of intercession for his soul, and hoping that God might allow them to meet on the day of rejoicing.”
The family cleans his sheets and tends to his bed sores. They slaughter and brew and bake in preparation for the funeral feast. Everything possible is done ahead of time “so that there would be peace and quiet when the last struggle came.” The preparations for the banquet and funeral procession seem to cheer Lavrans. His coffin would be carried to several churches where he had arranged to leave gifts of money and candles.
Kristin’s mother tends to her husband tirelessly. They talk to each other “calmly and quietly, mostly about small, everyday matters.” There is “something new in their eyes and in the tone of their voices.”
The parish priest visits the dying man every day. He reads the Bible books about fear and courage, faith and doubt, body and soul, the trials of purgatory, the saints and the salvation of heaven.
Lavrans now spoke often of the purgatory fire, which he expected to enter soon, but he showed no sign of fear. He hoped for great solace from the prayers of intercession offered by his friends and the priests; and he consoled himself that Saint Olav and Saint Thomas would give him strength for the last trial, as he felt they had given him strength here in life. He had always heard that the person who firmly believed would never for a moment lose sight of the salvation toward which the soul was moving, through the fiery blaze.
Kristin thinks Lavrans is almost looking forward to Purgatory, as if it were a test of manhood. He seems eager for death, like a soldier “eager for battle and adventure.”
Months pass. Lavrans begins to worry that his death will come in the middle of the spring farm work, “which would be a great hardship for many people who wanted to honor him by escorting his funeral procession.” He grows restless:
In sickness we are born and in sickness we die, except for those who die in battle. That seemed to me the best kind of death when I was young: to be killed on the battlefield. But a sinful man has need of a sickbed, and yet I don’t think my soul will be any better healed if I lie here longer.
On the morning of the fifth day after the Feast of Saint Halvard, Lavrans’s heart begins to fail him. His priest hears his confession. The servants approach the bed and Lavrans gives them his hand—thanking them, telling them to live well, asking for their forgiveness if he ever offended them in any way, and beseeching them to remember him with prayer for his soul. He kisses his daughters and asks God and the saints to bless them. Last of all, he says goodbye to his wife. With death in the room, they whisper words no one else can hear. Kristin and her sisters weep bitterly. The priest anoints the dying man with oil and gives him the viaticum.
Hours pass. Dusk settles in and the priest lights a candle. Everyone is present. Lavrans’s body trembles. His face turns blue as he fights for breath. The priest lifts him into a sitting position, and holds up the cross before his face.
Lavrans opened his eyes, fixed his gaze on the crucifix in the priest’s hand, and said softly but so clearly that almost everyone in the room could hear him: “Exsurrexi, et adhuc sum tecum” [“When I awake, I am still with thee,” Ps. 139:18]. Several more tremors passed over his body, and his hands fumbled with the coverlet. [The priest] continued to hold him against his chest for a moment. Then he gently laid his friend’s body down on the bed, kissing his forehead and smoothing back his hair, before he pressed his eyelids and nostrils closed; then he stood up and began to say a prayer.
Many guests come to keep vigil over the body that night while the priest sings. Over the next few days, countless neighbors visit. Although the corpse “had merely yellowed a bit,” no one had seen “so many candles brought to a dead man’s bier.”
On the fifth day, the funeral feast begins, “grand in every way.” The funeral procession carries the body away, “a verdant smell in the air, the singing of creeks released everywhere, and a green sheen over all the groves and meadows.” Everyone is singing hymns. The priest leads, followed by vergers carrying the crosses and tapers, “flames in the bright sunlight … kinsmen and friends in the long procession.”
A Good Death is Hard to Find
Within the year, Kristin’s mother moves to a cloister and dies. She is laid to rest at her husband’s side, their grave adorned with beautifully carved crosses. Just days before her death, Kristin’s mother had “such a longing for the body of the Savior” that she made her confession and was given communion: “she had been granted a good death.”
When Kristin’s noble brother-in-law, Simon Andresson, faces death the family and servants gather as he bids them farewell. The priest hears his confession and gives him the last oil and viaticum. The dying is dismayed that he can no longer cross himself. He reflects:
Whenever we make the sign of the cross over ourselves or over anything that we want to protect with the cross, then we must remember how the cross was made sacred and what it means, and remember that with the suffering and death of the Lord, this symbol was given honor and power.
Simon feels ill prepared to leave this earthly home. He finds comfort in that he prepared himself as best he could in the time he had, through confession, and had been given the last rites. “And so he would have to put his trust in God, who judges a man not according to his worth but through His mercy.” With “the entire household in the room” the death struggle begins and ends. A “magnificent funeral feast” is held in Simon’s honor, and he is buried in consecrated ground.
Kristin’s husband would not share such a fate. Erlend Nikulaussøn is pierced through with a spear while feigning chivalry. They rush to prepare his bed. Supported by pillows and cushions, he holds his wife’s hand. His six sons step up to the deathbed and he apologizes for not handling things well. The family is alone. Kristin begs him to send for a priest. But her husband is proud. “In the name of Jesus,” she implores, “let us send word to [the priest] for you. God is God, no matter what priest brings Him to us.”
Erlend refuses. “I am a sinful man. May God bestow on me the grace of His mercy, as much as He will grant me.” Kristin begs him to think of his soul, but his face grows “pale as newly split wood.”
She could feel her clothes were cold and sticky, wet with the blood that had spattered her when she helped him inside and put him to bed. Now and then a faint gurgling came from Erlend’s chest, and he seemed to have trouble breathing; but he did not move again, nor was he aware of anything more as he surely and steadily sank into the torpor of death.
With wild eyes Kristin stares at her husband’s dead face, “which now shone snow-white in the light of the candle.” The priest arrives with deacons bearing candles and ringing a silver bell. But it is too late. And Kristin is frozen in grief, “stretched out across Erlend’s corpse.”
All Things New
Some years after Kristin’s husband dies, she moves to a cloister. In the last moments of her life—not knowing that she is soon to die—she defends the nuns against slander, saves a child from being murdered, and personally carries a neglected corpse to be buried in consecrated ground. That night she realizes she has the plague.
The nuns care for her in her last hours, and an old friend holds her hand. “She had been a servant of God—a stubborn, defiant maid … yet [God] had held her firmly in His service.” Under her heart, Kristin knows that she is “owned by her Lord and King who would now come, borne on the consecrated hands of the priest, to give her release and salvation.” As soon as the priest anoints her with the last oil and viaticum, she loses consciousness:
Everything disappeared in a dark red haze and a roar, which at first grew fearfully loud, but then the din gradually died away, and the red fog became thinner and lighter, and at last it was like a fine morning mist before the sun breaks through, and there was not a sound, and she knew that she was dying.
The witnesses leave the deathbed together. Outside, snow has fallen. “The white sheen was strangely dazzling on the steep slant of the church roof … the snow lay so fine and white on all the window frames and all the jutting gray stones of the church walls.” Bells ring. They breathe the fresh air, and “without thinking, they both walked as lightly and carefully as they could in the new snow.”
Kristin Lavransdatter drops readers into a world of sinners in need of grace, a world of men and women who not only live, but also die. Call it medieval. Call it what you will. I call it the Catholic faith.
Sigrid Undset proclaims that the Catholic Church is “the bearer of those ideals which cannot die—the majority of men do not succeed in living in accordance with them, but they always rediscover after a time that they cannot live without them.” But who can bear to hear the death knell? Like the altars of reformed Europe, death has been stripped. On the surface, it looks like popular piety has only made a few tiny tweaks. Taken together, however, these tweaks add up to one colossal change in Catholic religious practice. As candlesticks were once melted down, rood screens defaced, chasubles unstitched, walls whitewashed, relics discarded, and feast days erased from the calendar, so now Catholics have been stripped of the once-familiar spiritual nourishment of Extreme Unction. It left with all the other things we’ve taken out of the home. There are fates worse than death.
The means of grace and the hope of glory go hand in hand. If we water down the means, we will only water down the hope. Apart from grace, there is no glory.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from an altarpiece featuring three of the seven sacraments painted by Rogier van der Weyden in 1445-50.