Wherein I Mercilessly Slaughter Your Dreams of a Viking Funeral

Whenever I get asked about a “Viking funeral,” it usually reads something like this: “I don’t want to be cremated or buried. Just put me out on a boat and light me on fire like the Vikings. That’s a totally wicked way to go out.”


My response is going to piss you off for two reasons:

1)  Shooting flaming arrows onto a boat with a corpse on it as method of body disposal is totally illegal.

2)  Shooting flaming arrows onto a boat with a corpse on it as method of body disposal is totally not something the Vikings actually did.

That’s right, folks, you done been fooled by Hollywood. I myself was fooled by Hollywood images of the crag-faced Viking warrior, staring intensely into the setting sun as the longboat carrying his fallen brethren goes up in flames. I only figured out the truth myself in college when I took a class called From Viking to Crusader (yes, Medieval History is a pretty great major) and wrote a final term paper on Viking body disposal.

In reality, those longboats were expensive. They were not made for casual burning anytime a warrior died — which was pretty much all the time. Also, the logistics just don’t work. You could set a boat with a body on it on fire, but it would get nowhere near as hot as a cremation pyre. What you’d likely end up with is a charred body floating back up on shore. Which, frankly, takes a bit of dignity out of the whole idea, no?

That doesn’t mean the Vikings didn’t do a lot of awesome things with burial, cremation, and the dead. If the dead guy was a very high ranking warrior, sometimes he would be buried in his ship in a burial mound. Instead of being trapped in a casket, he got to sail right off into eternity. They might also create a proxy ship out of rocks. A metaphorical ship for eternity. (No word on whether burying the actual ship got you to Valhalla faster than the metaphorical ship.)

Vikings were also into the use of grave goods — things used in this life that were buried or cremated to be used in the next life.  Mostly the goods were things like weapons, shields, food, etc., but could also be slaves. Sorry Bjorn, I will need your slave-help in the next life, into the ship grave with me you come. No one said being a Viking slave was easy.

So there you have the sad truth. But worry not, deathlings, there is still room for creativity in this matter. I refer you to Order member Susie Kahlich’s piece on the proxy Viking funeral she held for her mother. Don’t give up on the power of your dreams just yet, ya hear?

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  • Monica

    Wonderful post! as a huge viking-age enthusiast and former historical re-enactor, I have always been amazed by the assortment of items that were buried with the 2 ladies in the Oseberg ship burial in Norway. The Oseberg “tapestries” (they were actually embroideries and not woven tapestires) being some of the most amazing.

  • WitchArachne

    Oh well do I know that it’s not really how they disposed of their dead (I am, after all, an archaeology/history student), but the idea is pretty damn wicked.
    Historical inaccuracy aside, my desire to be shoved out to sea on a raft and shot with burning arrows is still pretty high, though I hadn’t thought about the whole not-hot-enough-to-actually-burn-me thing.
    I do really like Susie Kahlich’s Mum’s funeral though. Now that is a way to go out with style and dignity.

  • What if you built a pyre on the ship? =I mean, I’m not arguing that they ever did this, but it seems like you could stack wood appropriately, put the body on top of it, and light that. Maybe douse some important parts of it with oil so it would burn better, or, say, build a pyre with oil-doused kindling in the middle so you could get a good fire going?

  • What about the Viking Fortune Cookie?

  • Loved this! I too sort of blindly assumed that if Hollywood did it it was real, AND I love learning about death traditions/customs, so this was a win-win I guess! 🙂

  • Tera Ellefson

    Duh, it’s being buried sitting up amongst my treasure-hoard that *I* want. Then I can perform the socially useful function of proving who’s *really* the strongest in Hordaland when they all come and fight my corpse for it.

  • Darn. Looks like Tibetan Sky Burial has made it to the #1 spot. Since they’ll no longer be piled around my feet at the foot of the boat, do you think the Buddhist monks will feed the heads of my vanquished foes to the vultures?

  • I prefer the Hollywood version, I will start my own ritual.

  • Taylor

    Your ideas are not exactly true. Although not common or practical chieftains would be burnt in their ship. The chieftains woman was also raped, strangled and buried with the chief. Refer to Ahmad ibn Fadlan writings on the subject where he witness such a burial. It is unclear if the ship or boat was on land or sea and the fire was set by relatives and not by flaming arrows.

    • Leon Evelake

      According fadlans account the woman went tent to tent willingly

    • Merlith Gero

      Talk about spreading misinformation… The woman was NOT the chieftains wife. She was a “trell” (a slave). What this slave ment for the chieftain, or what her rolle was is not mentioned as far as i know.. But she (according to Ahmad) willingly agreed to be buried with her “owner”.
      Ahmad also claimed that she slept with men (and that this was a way for the men to show their “love” for their dead chieftain).

      Either way, i dont think we can really make any large generalization of norse tradition.. As it probably varied quite alot depending on which region and tribe the norsemen originated from.
      There is no way of knowing if this human sacrifice and sex with said slave was part of the traditional norm, or if it is something that this specific group of vikings had developed

  • Matay bucket

    I don’t care what you say my hamster will be honored.

  • Leon Evelake

    Gonna throw out there that the burning ship set at sea has some slight precedent with Baldurs funeral in Norse myth

  • Yasuho Hirose

    This article is nonsense. It’s built around the writers strawman argument that people are claiming every average viking was buried this way. No, only kings were. But this method of burial absolutely was practiced, just for people who were worth burning an expensive longboat for.

    • Yasuho Hirose

      There are many historical records proving that this “burning ship” burial method was indeed used. Not just from texts written by Nordics themselves, but by foreigners as well. So it’s pretty much confirmed since different sources say the same thing. For example an Arabic merchant from Constantinople that traveled north all the way into what are now Russian lands met some vikings and stayed as their guest for a while, trading with them. His writings tell of this burial method.

  • You’re leaving out some things here. There were “Hollywood style” Viking burials but they were not universal, probably reserved for nobility and when time and resources allowed and only among certain groups. Secondly, it has been argued they were recreations of a real ship, designed to burn the corpse in its entirety, I never researched that, however. What we know for certain is that Ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab traveler, famous for his account of his travels as a member of an embassy of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Volga Bulgars, wrote a detailed Risala (“account” or “journal”) of the Volga Vikings, including an eyewitness account of a ship burial. This is where Hollywood got the idea.

  • michael waryas

    Step 1 while your able build a small wooden boat
    Step 2 get cremated
    Step 3 get put in your boat
    Step 4 set boat on fire and get pushed out into water
    Step 5 who cares if it’s legal or not you’re a fucking viking
    Step 6 enjoy vallhala with the rest of your heathen friends