Norwegians paid their respects on Monday to a woman whom many regarded as a national icon. King Harald, Queen Sonja and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg were among those attending the state funeral honouring actress and social activist Wenche Foss, who died last week at the age of 93.
“We do this for persons who have made a great contribution to the country,” Anniken Huitfeldt, Norway’s government minister for culture, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), which aired the funeral live and nationwide. “We thought she deserved this.”
Foss was remembered not just for her decades on the stage, in films and on television, but for her commitment to social justice and the weaker members of society. She used her celebrity throughout her life to bring attention to important causes, to spread tolerance and dissolve social tabus.
She was never afraid of exposing her own vulnerability and weaknesses in the hopes it would help others. When she gave birth to a child with Down’s Syndrome in the early 1950s, she went public with photos of herself holding her infant son, who died just a few years later. And as Stoltenberg noted in his remarks at her funeral, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she went public with that, too. “She removed the shame at the time for parents with children who were different, and for women with cancer,” Stoltenberg said. “She gave us so much as an artist and a person.”
Stoltenberg also said, to laughter from the roughly 1,000 persons inside the cathedral, that he had never met a person who, with such friendliness and grace, “could tell me that my standpoints on a certain issue were completely wrong. Even greater was the joy when we were in agreement.”
Ellen Horn, an actress and former minister of culture, claimed that “everyone smiled” when Foss was around. Horn spoke at the funeral on behalf of friends and colleagues in the theater, before making a deep curtsy before Foss’ flower-bedecked coffin. Foss was known for remembering names, inquiring about acquaintances’ health or personal matters, and sharing the flowers she’d receive at the theater with nursing homes and hospitals. She firmly believed that the greatest joy a person can have, is the joy of making others happy. “She spread joy to an entire population,” Stoltenberg said.
The public started lining up outside the Oslo Cathedral (Domkirken) early Monday morning in the hopes of getting a coveted seat inside the capital’s largest church that’s long been the scene of royal weddings and funerals. After several days of gloomy, foggy weather, the sun came out just as the organ started playing.
There were few reserved spots inside, in accordance with Foss’ wishes that her funeral be open to the public. Famous faces mingled with the lesser-known, including actress Liv Ullmann, former Prime Minister Kåre Willoch, many artists and several captains of business and industry such as retailing tycoon Stein Erik Hagen and shipowner Morits Skaugen Jr, who was a pallbearer.
Violinist Arve Tellefsen played “En moders bønn” (A mother’s prayer) by Ole Bull, at Foss’ request, while Foss also wanted a recording of herself singing Ingerid Sletten, accompanied by the late pianist Robert Levin. Former Oslo Bishop Gunnar Stålsett officiated, also at the request of Foss. He called her “a national symbol” whose death brought forward what the Norwegian’s call vemod, a mixture of sorrow and joy. He noted how Foss was always highly critical of persons in positions of power who misused their power, and of displays of intolerance. She was a diva who spread light, “and made death her friend,” Stålsett said.
“Norway’s Wenche Foss was a diva,” agreed one of her two grandsons, Fabian Emil Stang, in a memorable eulogy. “But she had another role, too. She was our grandmother.” Stang, whose father Fabian Stang is the mayor of Oslo, noted that she would deliver her fairy tales to them meticulously recorded on a CD, but that she also was “wise, warm and understanding” with a wonderful sense of humor that was a source of energy for her.
“She will always be remembered as a foundation in our lives, and we will take with us the respect she had for other people,” the young Stang said.