Why Greenlanders Don’t Have Epitaphs on Their Gravestones

Nothing is set in stone, except of course your epitaph. In a recent essay for Aeon, Tom Pitock mused on the difficulty of writing his own father’s epitaph, and why we etch words on tombstones to remember people we loved. But not every culture uses epitaphs, as Pitock learned in Greenland:

It took real effort to find the cemetery in Lower Burma, but in Greenland, the world’s largest island, it was impossible to miss it. The capital city, Nuuk, has just 17,000 people, with a mere 39,000 more concentrated in settlements across the rest of the of the country. New graves are decorated with ebullient arrangements of artificial flowers, which, when they wither, are not replaced. ‘We do not visit graves,’ said Salik Hard, whom I met while travelling there. ‘Once a person is gone, we go on to the future.’

And because of that, Greenlanders don’t use epitaphs, not even names.

They are officially Evangelical Lutherans but retain many of the beliefs of their Inuit heritage, including that every person consists of a body, a spirit, and a name. When the body perishes, the spirit and the name travel together in search of a new body.

‘If you put a name on the stone,’ Salik explained, ‘it will never leave the grave. It will be trapped. Obviously.’

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