Can you explain the social change between the burial ceremony at the beginning and the burial ceremony at the end in Beowulf? 

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teachsuccess | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The first funeral we read about in this Anglo-Saxon poem is Scyld Scefing's ship burial. Scyld or Shild (in some translations) was a Danish king, famed for his battlefield exploits. At his death, the king's corpse is deposited into a 'ring-prowed fighting/Ship,' along with hoards of gold, varied treasures, 'jeweled helmets,/Hooked swords and coats of mail.'

The poet tells us that the old king was 'Still strong but called to the Lord's hands.' Even though this form of pagan burial is common to the Germanic peoples, the poet hints at the Christian interpretation that God controls everything, whether human beings give him the benefit of acknowledgement or not.

...then sadly let/ The water pull at the ship, watched it/Slowly sliding to where neither rulers/Nor heroes nor anyone can say whose hands/Opened to take that motionless cargo.

As such, Shild's mourners may carry out the pagan last rites worthy of a great king, but their honor and respect are sublimated by the Christian God for His wiser purposes. The poet intimates that it is God who receives the cargo, despite the ignorance displayed in practice through pagan faith rituals. The underlying Christian reference to Noah trusting his fate to God in the ark is intimated by the poet's references to the Great Deluge in the poem.

The last funeral is Beowulf's; the poet describes a funeral pyre and a burial mound. After the Geats cremate Beowulf's corpse, the ashes are buried, along with the dragon's treasures in a burial mound by the sea. The 1939 discovery of a ship burial at Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, England, greatly explains the significance of the funerals in Beowulf. At the beginning of the poem, we see that the warriors are saddened by the death of their leader, but comforted that he will be buried with all the treasures worthy of a great monarch and warrior-king. At the end of the poem, Beowulf tells Wiglaf to distribute the treasure and gold to his people.

I sold my life/For this treasure, and I sold it well. Take/ what I leave, Wiglaf, lead my people,/ Help them; my time is gone...

However, the grieving warriors bury all the treasure with their beloved king, signifying a certain hopelessness and despair. Without a wise king to lead them and to properly distribute the wealth, the treasure is of no use to the people. Treasure alone will not help them rule wisely. Therefore, the funeral at the end of the poem demonstrates the people's change in attitude. The pagan preoccupation with materialistic advantages has given way to true despair, inspired by the realization of the ephemeral quality of physical treasures.

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