Burial Rites

Burial Rites Chapter 13 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chapter Thirteen opens with a letter to Blöndal from a representative in Copenhagen. The letter presents several documents to Blöndal, including the court’s ruling on Agnes’s case, the King’s letter granting Sigga’s appeal, the document confirming that the sentence should be carried out in Iceland, and the sanction for Gudmundur Ketilsson to serve as executioner.
As with all the letters in the book, these show the importance of writing and literacy in Icelandic society. The letters also show that, as expected, Sigga was granted her appeal (perhaps because, as Agnes thinks, Sigga is young and beautiful and innocent-seeming). Here, the logistics of Agnes and Fridrik’s execution are also confirmed.
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The secretary lays out certain requirements pertaining to the execution, including that Fridrik and Agnes must have a priest visit them each day, that the execution should occur near Natan’s farm, that the platform should be made of turf, that Gudmundur Ketilsson be trained for the execution, that the local farmers must attend, that the prisoners cannot see each other’s executions, and that the bodies should be buried without Christian burial rites. The secretary also reminds Blöndal that he must return the axe to Copenhagen after the execution.
Although Blöndal seems like the most powerful character in the book, this letter from the secretary in Denmark shows that he is being carefully controlled by authorities in Denmark. As the secretary details all the rules that Blöndal must follow, it is obvious that Blöndal does not actually have much choice in the orders he carries out.
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Next, Kent shows a letter to the District Officers from Blöndal, confirming the date of Fridrik and Agnes’s executions for January 12. Blöndal reminds them that local farmers must attend. After this letter, there is a letter from Sigga’s priest to Blöndal thanking him for obtaining Sigga’s pardon and saying Sigga is praying to God. Kent then presents the “Icelandic Burial Hymn,” which describes knowing Jesus will help people to not be afraid of death, and even to welcome it.
As Tóti suggested during his meeting with Blöndal, Blöndal is using Agnes and Fridrik’s executions as a way to show his power and authority in the region. This is especially obvious in Blöndal’s letter, as he is requiring all the farmers in the area to attend the executions. Sigga, meanwhile, has apparently undergone a religious rebirth after her appeal, as Agnes predicted.
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The chapter then resumes its third-person narrative as it describes Tóti being woken by a knock on his door. He answers it to find a messenger from Blöndal. Tóti reads the letter then quickly dresses. His father, concerned about his health, asks Tóti where he is going. Tóti says that the letter announced Agnes’s execution in six days, and so he must go see her. Reverend Jón objects, saying he is too weak and that it is not worth it to help a murderer, but Tóti insists, saying it is God’s will. On his way out, Tóti stops in the church to pray for pity.
This scene stands in contrast to the earlier moment when Tóti first received the letter asking him to be Agnes’s spiritual guide. Tóti clearly has more self-confidence and sense of purpose than when he started his spiritual journey with Agnes, as he now springs out of bed to go help her. Tóti’s father is skeptical, but rather than asking his father’s advice, Tóti rejects his interference, saying he knows that what he is doing is God’s will.
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Get the entire Burial Rites LitChart as a printable PDF.
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The narrative jumps to Tóti’s arrival at Kornsá. Margrét greets Tóti at the door and is surprised by his sickly appearance. Tóti asks to speak with Jón, and Margrét leads him into the kitchen to warm up. Tóti explains his recent illness and Margrét goes to get Jón. Once Jón arrives, Tóti hands Jón the letter from Blöndal proclaiming the date of Agnes’s execution. The family at Kornsá had not yet heard about it. Margrét goes to fetch Agnes.
Tóti delivers the news of Agnes’s impending execution, but Kent neglects to depict the scene when Agnes is actually told that her execution date has been set, only portraying the moments before and after. Kent’s choice not to narrate these moments seems to reflect a sense that certain scenes are better left to the imagination rather than literature.
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The narrative switches to Agnes’s first person perspective as she talks with Tóti, trying to process the fact that Tóti has just told her about her execution date. She feels like she is suffocating as Tóti says kind, reassuring things to her. Agnes feels that no one can understand how she feels as a “barren,” “dry,” condemned person. She thinks that when her head is cut off she will not bleed.
Agnes’s comments about the incomprehensibility of being condemned and the particular way that it makes her feel suggests that incarceration and condemnation to death affect her psychological state profoundly and in ways that can’t be understood by anyone who has not experienced it.
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The narrative switches back to the third person as Tóti tries to get through to Agnes, who is staring at the floor. Jón calls for some brandy. Agnes asks how many days until the execution, and Tóti tells her six. Agnes asks if Tóti could beg Blöndal for an appeal, and Margrét backs Agnes up, saying the crime was not her fault. Tóti, surprised, asks if Agnes talked to Margrét, and Margrét confirms that they did have a conversation about Agnes’s role in the murders. Agnes says she cannot move her hands, and Tóti tells Agnes, futilely, that he is there for her.
Although Agnes expresses a last-ditch hope that she may be able to get an appeal like Sigga did, her belief that the truth would not set her free seems to prevail. Although Agnes has now told the true story to Margrét, and Margrét believes her, Margrét’s faith does nothing to change the court’s decision. It is unclear whether anyone seriously inquired about an appeal on Agnes’s behalf, although it is unlikely it would have been granted in any case.
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The narrative switches back to Agnes’s voice as she tries to cope with her impending death. She thinks about the dark sky and a cold wind, which will still be there after she is gone, and the freezing and thawing of the soil with the seasons. She imagines herself buried in that soil, and how over time her body will become part of the landscape.
As Agnes thinks about her impending death, she finds comfort in the idea that, even if she does not know what the fate of her soul will be in the afterlife, her body will surely become a part of the Icelandic landscape that she so loves. Clearly, the landscape carries important spiritual meaning for Agnes.
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The narrative returns to the third-person, describing how Tóti and Agnes both stay awake late, and then fall asleep. Margrét is still awake and knitting. She looks around the badstofa and notices that Lauga is missing from her bed. Margrét gets up and eventually finds Lauga in the pantry. Margrét asks what she is doing there, and if she is upset. Lauga says she just wanted some alone time. The two women go back to bed.
As Agnes’s death approaches, Lauga’s behavior becomes stranger and stranger. When Margrét finds her, Lauga seems to be unable to sleep, suggesting that Lauga is feeling guilty about something. For Lauga, who always follows social norms to the letter, her budding sympathy for Agnes contradicts the things she has held to be true.
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The narrative returns to Agnes’s first person perspective, as she remembers how Fridrik never found Natan’s money after his death, before they burned the farm with the whale oil. At Kornsá everyone tries to make Agnes eat, but she does not want to. What she wants is the stone Ingveldur gave her to talk to birds. Agnes imagines herself lost and lonely in the silence that will follow her execution. She thinks that there is no afterlife and no way home from death. She worries that, if no one says her name, she will be forgotten.
As Agnes’s death approaches, she attempts to imagine the afterlife. Rather than Christian heaven, Agnes pictures the afterlife as darkness and silence. Agnes again shows how important names are to her, as she worries that if no one says her name she will be totally forgotten. But Agnes’s worry is clearly unfounded, since, two hundred years later, Kent has written this novel and spread Agnes’s name around the world.
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On the eve of the execution, the family of Kornsá spends time together in the badstofa. They all watch as Tóti and Agnes hold hands and talk. Margrét pulls a chest out from under the bed. They open the chest, which is full of clothes, and Margrét takes out a wool shawl, a skirt and a white embroidered shirt and apron and give them to Agnes. Margrét asks Lauga to hand her the silver brooch. Lauga hesitates, teary, and then hands it to Margrét to add to Agnes’s execution outfit.
Whereas when Agnes first arrived at Kornsá, Margrét helped her burn her dress (which was also her last possession), Margrét now gives Agnes clean clothes to wear on her execution. This act of kindness suggests that the fine clothes give Agnes a sense of dignity as she goes to her death. Meanwhile, Margrét’s kindness reflects how highly Agnes has risen in her esteem.
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The narrative returns to Agnes’s first person perspective. Margrét holds Agnes’s hand and tell her she is not a monster. Agnes says “they’re going to kill me,” and Margrét promises they will remember her. Agnes starts to cry and Margrét comforts her. Agnes suddenly feels she has something in her mouth and spits it out. She sees that it is a stone (though it’s unclear whether the stone is actually there or Agnes is hallucinating it).
Kent does not clarify whether Agnes’s mother’s stone is really there or not. Because no other characters notice it, it seems likely that it is a hallucination. However, Agnes’s imagination of the stone seems to suggest that she has finally been able to make peace with her past and find a home at Kornsá, and even, in the moments before her death, to have accessed some secret truth about life or nature (since the stone was supposed to allow her to talk to birds).
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Agnes says goodbye to Steina, who hugs her and sobs. Agnes apologizes, though she isn’t sure why. Lauga says Agnes’s name, and Agnes notes aloud that it is the first time she has done so. Lauga collapses, clearly pained by this realization. Tóti says they should go, and someone lifts Agnes onto a horse. Agnes feels like she is underwater.
Throughout the book, the reasons behind Lauga’s feelings toward Agnes are opaque. Lauga’s pain when she realizes that she has never called Agnes by name may be her guilt that, by only seeing Agnes as a criminal, Lauga never acknowledged her humanity.
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The perspective changes back to the third-person as Tóti and Agnes ride towards the spot where Agnes will be executed. Agnes is so afraid that she pees herself. She apologizes, but Tóti seems unbothered. He tells her he is with her. Jón is riding with them, as are several other men. One of the men brings a flask of alcohol for Agnes to drink. Agnes drinks the alcohol and thanks them.
Although Agnes has a bad reputation following her crimes, the men riding with her show her kindness by giving her alcohol to drink before her execution. Tóti, meanwhile, continues to support Agnes as promised. Rather than using Christian teachings, he continues to use his strategy of acting as an equal and friend to her.
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Finally, the riders arrive at Agnes’s execution place. Tóti helps Agnes down. She is so drunk that she has trouble standing and feels she cannot move her legs. Jón comes to help Tóti with Agnes, but Tóti insists on lifting her himself. He holds Agnes’s hand and hauls her out of the snow. People start gathering to watch Fridrik’s execution, which is first. Tóti and Agnes sit in the snow. Jón takes a sip from his flask.
As Agnes confronts her impending execution, her prophetic dream about Tóti helping her across a field of snow comes true. The snow prevents Agnes from walking alone, seeming to represent the impossibility of confronting her difficult existential crisis without people to help her through it.
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As the minutes go by, Tóti suggests that they pray. Agnes hears the burial hymn being sung, and she and Tóti sing along. Jón, meanwhile, says the Lord’s prayer. Agnes, panicked, tells Tóti she is not ready, and asks if they can wait. Tóti tells her that he will not let go of her and holds her hand. They hear the axe fall, executing Fridrik.
Although Agnes has expressed skepticism towards Christianity at various points throughout the book, in her final hours she and Tóti sing a Christian burial hymn to keep her calm—a reference to the “burial rites” of the book’s title, which could also refer to the sum of Agnes’s final days at Kornsá. Although Tóti initially doubted his ability to help Agnes, he seems to successfully provide her with true comfort here.
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