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?