Where Equality Belongs

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There is no equality in Heaven, nor for that matter in purgatory, but there may very well be equality in Hell, where it belongs.

~ Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

"Nature" (i.e., the absence of human intervention) is anything but egalitarian; if we want to establish a complete plain we have to blast the mountains away and fill the valleys; equality, thus presupposes the continuous intervention of force which, as a principle, is opposed to freedom. Liberty and equality are in essence contradictory.

~ Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Liberty or Equality

On October 12, 2003 the editor-in-chief of the Norwegian private broadcaster TV 2, Mr. Kåre Valebrokk wrote a Sunday commentary in one of the leading Norwegian papers, Aftenposten. He has written quite a few Sunday commentaries for Aftenposten. This particular commentary’s translated title would read "Six feet under".

He admitted in this commentary that he likes visiting cemeteries. He claimed that there are quite a few who like visiting cemeteries, but those who do don’t make much a fuss about it. Wherever Mr. Valebrokk is in this world he tries finding a cemetery. Cemeteries tell a lot of history.

Mr. Valebrokk made two demands, namely to revive the custom of telling the world something about the deceased as well as — in a country with no basic space problem — to stop the custom of deleting graves after a short hundred years. Erroneously, he did not want to go back to the custom, which we had in the 19th century, of large gravestones.

I have seen gravestones for my great-great-grandparents with titles on them. I have seen no gravestones for my great-grandparents with titles on them, and that’s not because they were of lower social rank. An old grave could simply have the title secretary. Perhaps the use of titles in days gone by — at least compared to nowadays — shows us how inequality was accepted as natural, even in the country that is said to have the most egalitarian cultural heritage in Western civilization. There is little doubt at least that the pride one took in one’s work in former times was considerably greater than today. Nowadays, if one uses one’s title to the extent that titles were used a few decades ago, the question "Do you think you’re better than others?" and the egalitarian Law of Jante almost automatically come to mind. "Everyone’s equal, so no titles, get it?" No I don’t get it. Equality does not belong in civilized society!

Not everyone can be on top of the social ladder. Not everyone can be a millionaire — at least not if the word’s meaning as someone economically rich is to be retained. Leading people to believe that they are a failure unless they can be at the very top leads to much misery. If people can take pride in work of quality, however, not being on the top of the social ladder, this cannot be that bad. This does of course not imply that there should not be social mobility.

HRH the Prince of Wales caused a small commotion a little while ago by stating in a private memo:

What is it that makes everyone seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their technical capabilities?

This is all to do with the learning culture in schools. It is the consequence of a child-centred system which admits no failure and tells everyone they can all be pop stars, High Court judges, brilliant TV personalities or even infinitely more competent heads of state, without ever putting in the necessary effort or having natural abilities.

In the following debate Roger Scruton noted:

[T]here can be social advancement only where there is social hierarchy. In a society of equals there is neither failure nor success, and despair is conquered by the loss of hope. Real societies are not like that: they are shaped by competition, conflict, friendship and love, all of them forces that have distinction rather than equality as their natural outcome, and all of them profoundly antipathetic to the culture of self-esteem.

[...]

It follows that a society can be hierarchically ordered without being oppressive. For every station has its duties, the performance of which is both an end in itself and a passport to social affection. And through education, ambition and hard work you can change your station, to arrive at the place that matches your achievements and which, through performing its duties, you possess as your own.

When I was in Innsbruck this summer, I did take time to inspect some graveyards. My observations are by no means part of any extensive or systematic research. However, I do have a few impressions. A few graves had monuments with titles which would — for obvious reasons — never be used after World War I. Although even in Austria professional and academic titles1 probably were used more than what they are today, the use of such titles — though not in majority — were not uncommon on quite new graves. In Norway such use of titles is — if not completely — almost non-existent. People have "lost" their titles, and one wonders if they are in the process of losing their surnames as well.

The monuments in the graveyards I visited in and around Innsbruck, including quite recent graves, were generally bigger than Norwegian, and you would have to go back several decades for that not to be the case. In addition, the Austrian graves have a more personal expression. Norwegian graves these days generally get a relatively small stone. The gravestones are roughly the same size. Sometimes you may find a distinct difference in size between areas in the same cemetery, but within the area the size is about the same. However, there is no huge difference in size. Some ornamentation may exist on a few graves. The equality is not a delightful sight.

A notable difference between Austria and Norway is that the former is Catholic and the latter Lutheran Evangelical. As Catholic churches generally are more decorated than Lutheran Evangelical ones, one could be drawn to believe that this is the cause of the mentioned cemetery differences. Well, I am not too sure about that. We have — as hinted about previously — some grand graves, but as a rule they are quite old.

We today have regulations limiting the size of grave monuments to a height of 150 cm, a width of 85 cm, a thickness of 60 cm, a total volume 0.2 m2, and a total weight of 300 kg. Most of the modern day gravestones come well within the requirements, but the monuments of the old grand graves would have to be cut down to size if these regulations were to be given retroactive effect. The Austrian monuments would neither conform. It is sad that such egalitarianism in the graveyard is enforced. Not only do we have an estate tax with a maximum rate of 30 per cent, but one is not allowed — within the limits that practical concerns set — to have a memorial of one’s own choosing.

As a general rule gravestones are removed at least after a hundred years. Some places the limit is shorter. Exceptions are made though. Exceptions can be made for several reasons. Such a reason — although not the only applicable reason — can be that the person is particularly important. Equality rules, but obviously some are more equal than others. Now, I would not find it reasonable that the gravestone of Henrik Ibsen at Our Savior’s Cemetery in Oslo were to be removed next year on the 100th anniversary of his death — or on the 100th anniversary of the death of the last of his kin buried next to him for that matter.

Christian August Selmer, Prime Minister of Norway 1880—84, however, was also laid to rest in Our Savior’s Cemetery, although not in the Ground of Honor as Ibsen. The original monument was removed in 1990, the year after the centennial anniversary of his death. A lying stone has later been placed on his grave to mark it. Selmer was the Prime Minister to be impeached for defending the King’s prerogatives. He was "convicted" in that fateful year 1884, when parliamentarism came to Norway. The impeacher-in-chief, Johan Sverdrup, considered the father of Norwegian parliamentarism, and who died in 1892, of course has a tall monument with a bust on it in the Ground of Honor. No one has endeavored to remove his monument. This usurper and criminal has his monument intact. To be fair, those responsible for the cemeteries of Oslo admit to historical ignorance or neglect — and implicitly to having committed error — through removal of monuments for famous people and even reuse of their graves. However, one should expect more knowledge of and respect for the statesman who fought for our mixed government of the 19th century than what is shown by the removal of his original grave monument. One is reminded that history is written by the victors.

Moreover, Mr. Valebrokk certainly has a point when claiming that Norway’s immense space should enable more generosity than what is demonstrated by ending the protection of a grave only after a hundred years.

Furthermore, the day titles and inequality in shape and size return to Norwegian cemeteries should be celebrated. Equality does not belong in civilized society — and that certainly includes its graveyards.

Notes

  1. Titles of nobility obviously were more frequently used before.

Jørn K. Baltzersen [send him mail] is a senior consultant of information technology in Oslo, Norway.

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