Jelling, Denmark - Gorms Høj; Fitchburg, MA - Forest Hill Cemetery

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Title

Jelling, Denmark - Gorms Høj; Fitchburg, MA - Forest Hill Cemetery

Catalog Entry

Forest Hill Cemetery, found in the city of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, is recognizable by its rolling green hills, large number of head stones and burial sites, and wide open landscape. It was first established in 1856 and was designed by the architect Amasa Farrier. It is also well-known for its prominence of military members who are buried on the site as well as various ethnicities including French, English, Irish, German, Greek, Hispanic, and more. Mt. Elam Road, the road where the cemetery resides, also has significant historical value for the city. According to the Fitchburg Reconnaissance Report this road was first built in order to be a "designated scenic road" and also connects to downtown Fitchburg as well as Route 2. The geology of the city also plays an important role to Forest Hill Cemetery. Perhaps the most striking aspect of these burial grounds is the rise and fall of the hills on the property. The Fitchburg Reconnaissance Report says that, during the ice age, ice settled in the area and helped to create the "bowl shaped area" as well as the steep hills found in the city and in the cemetery. It is likely that these hills were an inspiration for the name of the cemetery. The largest cemetery in Fitchburg, it currently has approximately 60,000 grave sites, and there are currently plans to expand the site over the next 5-7 years according to the Sentinel and Enterprise newspaper. While this cemetery is certainly unique in its own ways, it still represents the traditional values of American burial practices. These values are noticeably different in other cultures, specifically the Old Norse burial practices of the Middle Ages.

The Nordic burial mounds found in Jelling, Denmark are a striking example of the differences between the pagan burial rituals of the Norse and the modern American rituals. These two nearly identical mounds are about 70 meters in diameter and 11 meters high. These mounds would be built over the graves of prevalent members of the Norse community and are intricately layered to ensure they would last for centuries. A later addition to the mounds, a runic stone erected by Harald Bluetooth, represents the shift from a pagan society to a Christian one in later years. This site also once contained the first Christian church built in Jelling. This site offers an ideal illustration for the sudden shift in religious ideas and customs for the Norse people. Changing burial practices and other customs are also something that can be seen in the Icelandic sagas.

The Icelandic sagas, the lore and founding literature of these people, contains scenes of burial procedures and how these procedures were affected by the shift from paganism to Christianity. This is specifically apparent in Erik the Red's Saga. In chapter 6 of this saga, we see Thorstein who, along with many of his fellow villagers, has succumbed to sickness. He returns from the dead to tell Gurdid, a female villager, that he wishes to be buried with the new Christian rituals. He says to her from beyond the grave, "These [pagan] practices will not do… I want to have my corpse taken to a church" (664). Only after Thorstein and his fellow villagers have been buried in consecrated grounds do their spirits finally rest. This scene represents the shift in religious views as well as burial rituals, something that was important to the Norse people as well as the people of the United States. While there are certainly differences between the customary rituals of medieval Norse culture and modern-day American culture, the value of finding appropriate places to bury our dead remains constant in these societies. This can be seen at the Forest Hill Cemetery in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, as well as at the historical site of Jelling, Denmark.

Bibliography

Dobbins, Elizabeth. “Fitchburg Looks to Expand Forest Hill Cemetery.” Sentinel and Enterprise, 30 Aug. 2017.

"Erik the Red's Saga." The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. Edited by Jane Smiley, and Robert Leland Kellogg. Translated by Keneva Kunz. Penguin, New York, 2001.

Freedom's Way Heritage Association. Fitchburg Reconaissance Report: Freedom's Way Landscape Inventory. 2006, ci.fitchburg.ma.us/DocumentCenter/Home/View/482.

Galvin, William Francis. “Welcome to MACRIS.” Welcome to MACRIS, mhc-macris.net/.

“Jelling Mounds, Runic Stones and Church.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, whc.unesco.org/en/list/697. 

Catalog Entry Author(s)

Alexander Dewhurst, Student, Fitchburg State University

Photographer(s)

Kisha G. Tracy
Katie Duncan, Student, Fitchburg State University

Research Assistant(s)

Matthew McCann, Student, Fitchburg State University

Citation

“Jelling, Denmark - Gorms Høj; Fitchburg, MA - Forest Hill Cemetery,” Cultural Heritage through Image, accessed January 27, 2020, https://culturalheritagethroughimage.omeka.net/items/show/10.

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