Excerpts for Burial Rites

Burial Rites

A Novel

By Hannah Kent

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2014 Hannah Kent
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-24391-9



There will be an auction on the 24th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, for thevaluables the farmer Natan Ketilsson has left behind. There is one cow, a fewhorses, a considerable amount of sheep, hay and furniture, a saddle, a bridle,and many dishes and plates. All this will be sold if a decent offer ispresented. All valuables will be awarded to the highest bidder. If the auctionis not possible due to bad weather, it will be canceled and held the next day,weather allowing.

District CommissionerBjörn Blöndal

20th of March 1828

To the Very Reverend Jóhann Tómasson,

Thank you for your worthy letter from the 14th, where you wished to be informedof how we attended to the burial of Pétur Jónsson from Geitaskard, who is saidto have been murdered and burned on the night between the 13th and the 14th ofthis month, with Natan Ketilsson. As my Reverend is aware, there was somedeliberation over whether his bones should be buried in consecrated ground. Hisconviction and punishment for robbery, theft, and receiving stolen property wasto follow after his prosecution in the Supreme Court. However, we have not hadany letters from Denmark. The Land Court judge convicted Pétur on the 5th ofFebruary last year, and sentenced him to four years of hard labor in the Rasphusin Copenhagen, but at the time of his murder he was on "free foot." Therefore,in answer to your inquiry, his bones were buried with Christian rites, alongsideNatan's, as he could not yet be thought of as belonging to those outside theChristian way. These people are expressly defined in the letter from His Majestythe King on the 30th of December 1740, which lists all persons who shall not bepermitted Christian burial rites.

District CommissionerBjörn Blöndal

30th of May 1829

Rev. T. JónssonBreidabólstadur, Vesturhóp

To the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson,

I trust this letter finds you well and thriving in your administration of theLord's work in Vesturhóp.

Firstly, I wish to extend to you my congratulations, however belatedly, for thesuccessful completion of your studies in the south of Iceland. Your parishionerssay that you are a diligent young man, and I approve of your decision to repairto the north to begin your chaplaincy under the supervision of your father. Itis of considerable joy to me to know that there remain righteous men willing tofulfill their duties to man and God.

Secondly, I, in my capacity as District Commissioner, write to you in request ofservice. As you will be aware, our community has recently been darkened by theshadow of crime. The Illugastadir murders, committed last year, have in theirheinousness emblematized the corruption and ungodliness of this county. AsDistrict Commissioner for Húnavatn, I cannot abide societal waywardness and,after the anticipated authorization from the Supreme Court in Copenhagen, Iintend to execute the Illugastadir murderers. It is with this event in mind thatI ask for your assistance, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur.

As you will recall, I related the event of the murders in a letter circulated tothe clergy almost ten months ago, with orders that sermons of chastisement bedelivered. Allow me to repeat what occurred, this time to provide you with amore invested consideration of the crime.

Last year, on the night between the 13th and 14th of March, three peoplecommitted a severe and loathsome act against two men, with whom you may befamiliar: Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. Pétur and Natan were found in theburnt ruins of Natan's farm, Illugastadir, and a closer examination of theircorpses revealed wounds of a deliberately inflicted nature. This discovery ledto an inquiry, and from there a trial ensued. On the 2nd of July last year thethree persons charged with these murders—one man and two women—werefound guilty in the District Court, presided over by myself, and sentenced to bebeheaded: "He that Smiteth a Man so that he Die, shall be surely put to Death."The death sentences were upheld in the Land Court on the 27th of October lastyear, which met in Reykjavík. The case is currently being tried in Copenhagen'sSupreme Court, and it is likely that my original judgment will stand there also.The name of the convicted man is Fridrik Sigurdsson, the son of the farmer atKatadalur. The women are workmaids, named Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir and AgnesMagnúsdóttir.

These convicted persons are currently held in custody here in the north, andwill be until the time of their execution. Fridrik Sigurdsson has been takeninto Thingeyrar by Reverend Jóhann Tómasson, and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir wasremoved to Midhóp. Agnes Magnúsdóttir was to be kept until her execution atStóra-Borg, but for reasons which I am not at liberty to state, will be moved toa new holding at Kornsá in the valley of Vatnsdalur next month. She isdiscontented with her current spiritual administrator, and has used one of herfew remaining rights to request another priest. She has requested you, AssistantReverend Thorvardur.

It is with some uncertainty that I approach you for this task. I am aware thatyour responsibilities have so far been confined to the spiritual education ofyour parish's youngest members, which is to say, of undoubted value, but it isof little political import. You may yourself admit that you are too pale inexperience to know how to bring this condemned woman to the Lord and Hisinfinite mercy, in which case I would not protest your disinclination. It is aweight that I would hesitate to bestow on the shoulders of experiencedclergymen.

Should you, however, accept the responsibility of preparing Agnes Magnúsdóttirfor her meeting with our Lord, you will be obliged to visit Kornsá regularlywhen the weather allows. You must administer God's word and inspire repentanceand an acknowledgment of Justice. Please do not let flattery influence yourdecision, nor kinship, if any resides between you and the convicted. In allthings, Reverend, if you cannot construct your own counsel, seek mine.

I await word of your response. Please provide my messenger with such.

District CommissionerBjörn Blöndal

Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson was inside the small farmsteadadjoined to the church of Breidabólstadur, repairing the hearth with new stones,when he heard his father clear his throat in the doorway.

"There's a messenger from Hvammur outside, Tóti. He's asking for you."

"For me?" In his surprise he let a rock slip out of his hand. It dropped to thepacked earth floor, narrowly missing his foot. Reverend Jón sucked his teeth inannoyance, ducked his head under the doorframe and gently pushed Tóti out of theway.

"Yes, for you. He's waiting."

The messenger was a servant, dressed in a worn coat. He gave Tóti a long lookbefore speaking. "Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson?"

"That's me. Greetings. Well, I'm an Assistant Reverend."

The servant shrugged. "I have a letter for you from the District Commissioner,the Honorable Björn Blöndal." He pulled a small slip of paper out from theinside of his coat, and gave it to Tóti. "I've orders to wait here while youread it."

The letter was warm and damp from sitting inside the servant's clothes. Tótibroke the seal and, noting that it had been written that same day, sat on thechopping block outside the doorway and began to read.

When he finished Blöndal's letter, he looked up and noticed the servant watchinghim. "Well?" the servant prompted, with a raised eyebrow.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Your response for the District Commissioner? I don't have all day."

"May I talk with my father?"

The servant sighed. "Go on, then."

He found his father in the badstofa, slowly smoothing the blankets upon his bed.


"It's from the District Commissioner." Tóti offered his father the unfoldedletter and waited as he read it, unsure of what to do.

His father's face was impassive as he folded the letter and handed it back. Hedidn't say anything.

"What should I say?" Tóti asked, finally.

"That's your choice."

"I don't know her."


"She's not in our parish?"


"Why has she asked for me? I'm only an Assistant Reverend."

His father turned back to his bed. "Perhaps you ought to address that questionto her."

The servant was sitting on the chopping block, cleaning his nails with a knife."Well, now. What response am I to give the District Commissioner from theAssistant Reverend?"

Tóti replied before he knew his decision. "Tell Blöndal that I will meet withAgnes Magnúsdóttir."

The servant's eyes widened. "Is that what this is all about then?"

"I'm to be her spiritual advisor."

The servant gaped at him, and then suddenly laughed. "Good Lord," he muttered."They pick a mouse to tame a cat." And with that he mounted his horse andvanished behind the swell of hills, leaving Tóti standing still, holding theletter away from him as though it were about to catch fire.

Steina Jónsdóttir was piling dried dung in the yard outside her family's turfcroft when she heard the rapid clop of horses' hooves. Rubbing mud off herskirts, she stood and peered around the side of the hovel to better see theriding track that ran through the valley. A man in a bright red coat wasapproaching. She watched him turn towards the farm and, fighting a flicker ofpanic at the realization she would have to greet him, retreated back around thecroft, where she hurriedly spat on her hands to clean them and wiped her nose onher sleeve. When she returned to the yard, the rider was waiting.

"Hello, young lady." The man looked down at Steina and her filthy skirts with anair of bemusement. "I see I have interrupted you at your chores." Steina staredas he dismounted, gracefully swinging his leg over his horse. For a large man helanded lightly on his feet. "Do you know who I am?" He looked at her for aglimmer of recognition.

Steina shook her head.

"I am the District Commissioner, Björn Audunsson Blöndal." He gave her a littlenod of his head and adjusted his coat, which, Steina noticed, was trimmed withsilver buttons.

"You're from Hvammur," she murmured.

Blöndal smiled patiently. "Yes. I am your father's overseer. I have come tospeak with him."

"He's not home."

Blöndal frowned. "And your mother?"

"They're visiting folks down south in the valley."

"I see." He looked fixedly at the young woman, who squirmed and cast her eyesnervously to the fields. A smattering of freckles across her nose and foreheadinterrupted what was otherwise pale skin. Her eyes were brown and widely set,and there was a large gap between her front teeth. There was something ratherungainly about her, Blöndal decided. He noted the thick crescents of dirt underher fingernails.

"You'll have to come back later," Steina finally suggested.

Blöndal tensed. "May I at least come inside?"

"Oh. If you want. You can tie your horse there." Steina bit her lip whileBlöndal wound his reins through a post in the yard, and then she turned andalmost ran inside.

Blöndal followed her, stooping under the low entrance to the croft. "Will yourfather return this day?"

"No," was the curt reply.

"How unfavorable," Blöndal complained, stumbling in the dark passageway asSteina led him through to the badstofa. He had grown corpulent since his postingas District Commissioner and was accustomed to the more spacious dwellingprovided for him and his family at Hvammur, built from imported wood. The hovelsof the peasants and farmers had begun to repel him, with their cramped roomsconstructed of turf that issued clouds of dust in the summer, irritating hislungs.


"District Commissioner."

"I'm sorry, District Commissioner. Mamma and Pabbi, I mean, Margrét and Jón,will return tomorrow. Or the next day. Depending on the weather." Steinagestured towards the nearest end of the narrow room, where a gray woolen curtainserved as a partition between the badstofa and a tiny parlor. "Sit in there,"she said. "I'll go find my sister."

Lauga Jónsdóttir, Steina's younger sister, was weeding the meager vegetable plotat a little distance from the croft. Bent over her task, she hadn't seen theDistrict Commissioner arrive, but she heard her sister calling long before shecame into sight.

"Lauga! Where are you? Lauga!"

Lauga rose to her feet and wiped her soiled hands on her apron. She didn't shoutback to her sister, but waited patiently until Steina, running and tripping overher long skirts, spotted her.

"I've been looking everywhere for you!" Steina cried, out of breath.

"What on God's earth is wrong with you?"

"The Commissioner is here!"



Lauga stared at her sister. "District Commissioner Björn Blöndal? Wipe yournose, Steina, you're snotting."

"He's sitting in the parlor."


"You know, behind the curtain."

"You left him there by himself?" Lauga's eyes grew wide.

Steina grimaced. "Please come and talk to him."

Lauga glared at her sister, then quickly untied her dirty apron and dropped itbeside the lovage. "I can't think of what goes through your head sometimes,Steina," she muttered, as they walked quickly towards the croft. "Leaving a manlike Blöndal twiddling his thumbs in our badstofa."

"In the parlor."

"What difference does it make? I suppose you gave him the servants' whey todrink, too."

Steina turned to her sister with a panicked expression. "I didn't give himanything."

"Steina!" Lauga broke into a little trot. "He'll think us peasants!"

Steina watched her sister pick her way through the tussocks of grass. "We arepeasants," she mumbled.

Lauga quickly washed her face and hands, and snatched a new apron from Kristín,the family's workmaid, who had hidden herself in the kitchen at the sound of astranger's voice. Lauga found the District Commissioner seated at the littlewooden table in the parlor, reading over a slip of paper. Expressing apologiesfor her sister's discourteous reception, she offered him a plate of cold, hashedmutton, which he took gladly, albeit with a slightly injured air. She quietlystood aside as he ate, watching his fleshy lips wrap about the meat. Perhaps herPabbi was to be promoted from District Officer to an even greater title. Perhapshe would receive a uniform, or a stipend from the Danish Crown. There might benew dresses. A new home. More servants.

Blöndal scraped his knife across the plate.

"Would you like some skyr and cream, District Commissioner?" she asked, takingthe empty dish.

Blöndal waved his hands in front of his chest as if to decline, then paused."Well, all right, then. Thank you."

Lauga blushed and turned to fetch the soft cheese.

"And I would not object to coffee," he called after her as she ducked her headaround the curtain.

"What does he want?" Steina asked, huddling by the fire in the kitchen. "I can'thear anything except you, clomping up and down the corridor."

Lauga shoved the dirty plate at her. "He hasn't said anything yet. He wants skyrand coffee."

Steina exchanged looks with Kristín, who rolled her eyes. "We have no coffee,"Steina said quietly.

"Yes we do. I saw some in the pantry last week."

Steina hesitated. "I ... I drank it."

"Steina! The coffee isn't for us! We save it for occasions!"

"Occasions? The Commissioner never visits."

"The District Commissioner, Steina!"

"The servants are coming back from Reykjavík soon. We might have more then."

"That's then. What are we going to do now?" Exasperated, Lauga pushed Kristín inthe direction of the pantry. "Skyr and cream! Hurry."

"I wanted to know what it tasted like," Steina offered.

"It's too late. Bring him some fresh milk instead. Bring everything in when it'sready. Actually no, let Kristín. You look like you've been rolling in the dirtwith the horses." Lauga shot a scathing look at the dung on Steina's clothes andwalked back down the corridor.

Blöndal was waiting for her. "Young lady. I suppose you are wondering at myoccasioning your family with a visit."


Excerpted from Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. Copyright © 2014 Hannah Kent. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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