I swear on my mother’s grave: the unusual ways we make sacred statements
By Linda Caisley, CFP, Notary Public
Were you ever asked, as a kid, “do you swear on your mother’s grave”? Did you ever wonder what that meant, exactly? Or why on earth you would swear “on your mother’s grave”, or “so help me God”, or some other saying?
Swearing something (making an oath) is what we do when we want to indicate that what we are about to say is both incredibly serious to us, and the purest form of truth we can express. Both elements are necessary – the fact that the statement is as close to true as we can get, and that the subject matter is incredibly serious to us.
For example, I wouldn’t ever swear that I love chocolate (even though that’s certainly very true), because no matter how much I love chocolate, the subject matter of that statement is frivolous. Who cares that I love chocolate? No one. To swear that I love chocolate is a complete misuse of my oath.
Misusing your oath cheapens its ultimate importance. If you regularly swear to frivolous things, how will we ever know when you are really serious about something? Making off-the-cuff comments like “I swear I love chocolate”; or “I swear I flossed my teeth” means we can’t take you seriously when you swear that you didn’t steal that money, or kill that person.
So what makes an oath different from other solemn statements, promises, vows or pledges?
One thing that differentiates an oath from other kinds of statements or promises is that there are penalties for lying under oath:
- moral penalties: you are seen as an untruthful person in the eyes of others, or any deity that you have invoked in your oath
- legal penalties: you can be arrested for perjury for lying under oath; consequences could include a criminal record (no more traveling to Mexico, or the States!) or even going to jail for up to 14 years
Another thing that differentiates an oath from any other statement is that when we make an oath, we invoke something sacred to us. That sacred thing does not have to be a religious thing, but it must be truly sacred to us.
Invoking something sacred has two purposes: it shows us that your statement is of the highest possible seriousness to you, and it carries the implication that if what you are about to say isn’t completely true, and said with utmost seriousness, then that sacred thing you have invoked will be disrespected, profaned, or even lost to you.
Whatever invocation you make should be morally binding on you – you must truly believe that losing this sacred thing will devastate you in some substantial way: perhaps financially, emotionally, spiritually, or physically.
Imagine for a moment that I am asked to swear something “on my child’s life”. Since I don’t have kids, I can’t make such an oath – it simply wouldn’t be true. But if I did have children, and I make a statement like this, I am equating the importance and truthfulness of my statement to the value of my child’s life in my world. Do I really mean to say that if I don’t floss my teeth, my child’s life should be forfeited, either generally, or to me? Or that my child’s life would thereafter mean nothing to me?
If I swear that I floss my teeth on my child’s life, then you know that either my child’s life is not sacred to me, or that I am mis-using my oath. Both are epic failures of a responsible person, and both come with moral and legal penalties for improper use.
Swearing on your mother’s grave is a similar invocation of something that might be sacred to you. You would only make that statement if your mother actually was dead and buried (not cremated and ashes scattered).
In making that statement, you are implying that if you are lying, your untruth will condemn your mother to lie uneasy in her grave for eternity. If your mother was alive, or you hated her with every fibre of your being, then you would never make this kind of an oath. It would be neither true, nor sacred to you. You could only make this oath if your mother’s eternal rest was a sacred issue to you.
There are many different ways to make an oath. The most common way is for people to swear before God in some way. This means you make some variation of the statement “I swear that [facts] are true, to the best of my knowledge, information and belief, so help me God”. Invoking God’s name means that if you are not telling the truth, God will punish you for your falsehood.
But you don’t need to swear “before God”:
Some religions follow the Bible verse that says “..but I say unto you, Swear not at all…” (Matthew 5:34), which means, if you are of a faith that reads this passage literally, that you must not ever swear an oath of any sort, at all.
Some religions allow oaths only under very solemn circumstances; some religions, of course, use other books of faith as the basis for their oaths, and different cultures have different societal practices around making an oath: there is an oath involving a 2 hour Buddhist tea ceremony, one involving the sacrifice of a chicken, some involving burning joss sticks, a number involving burning statements on paper (eg. “may my life be destroyed as this paper is, if I tell a lie”), and one involving merely the raising of one’s hand.
If you simply don’t believe in God, or aren’t sure whether God exists, then you must never use God’s name in an oath, because doing so isn’t a marker of what is actually sacred to you.
If you don’t want to make an oath (or are prohibited from doing so by culture or religion), then you may “affirm” the truth of your statement. Making an affirmation carries the same legal and moral weight as an oath, it just doesn’t involve God. You say “I solemnly affirm and declare that [facts] are true, to the best of my knowledge, information and belief”. We use the generic phrase “putting you under oath” to mean either swearing an oath or making an affirmation.
Since it is rare for judges to take evidence in person in BC (sworn written statements called affidavits are most commonly used to get evidence in front of a judge), and many business declarations carry the same weight as an oath, a significant part of our work as BC Notaries is putting people under oath.
If you need to make a statement under oath (no matter what kind!), check our website for a notary near you.