Balder the Beautiful, slain by mistletoe and mischief, on his burning funeral ship while the Gods weep on the strand… –Norse myth
Check this out. Cool, right? And easy-peasy, if you’re an actual Viking in Viking Land (not a theme park)(although it should be). But for modern times, Viking funerals are a pain in the ass.
My mother was a proud, proud Swede (or Ikea Apologist, as I liked to call her), and made it clear in the final months of her life that nothing would do for her remains short of a proper Viking send-off. While this was certainly easy to agree to while she was still alive, once she had passed away my brothers and I were faced with the rather daunting task of putting together a Viking funeral.
Just to be clear: what my mother wanted was to lay her remains on a ship set ablaze and sailed out to sea, her spirit released to the sky by cleansing fire and carried to the mighty halls of Valhalla by the sea winds. Just like in the 1958 Kirk Douglas classic The Vikings. However, in the interest of historical accuracy, it must be noted that traditionally, Vikings cremated their dead on an open funeral pyre — thereby sending the spirit to Valhalla — and then buried the cremains, sometimes with their ships, under piles of stone and earth to create a funerary mound known as a tumulus. Not quite as glorious as shooting flaming arrows onto the decks of an Oseberg ship. On the other hand, what kind of idiot would bury a ship? Ships are for sailing and burning, not sticking in the ground. Silly Vikings!
So although my history-loving mother was asking for something of questionable historical veracity, who is going to argue with their mother’s dying wishes? Not me, and not my brothers. No way.
And here’s where we made our first questionable decision: we decided to go through with it. But there is no Viking funeral home. Ikea does not sell replica Oseberg ships (although they probably will in 5-4-3-2… ). There is no Viking mortician to accept flower deliveries, provide seating or ensure the decedent is actually present (our mom was almost lost in the mail!). So, basically, we had to make it up as we went along. It worked; it was a beautiful and apt remembrance of my mom, and we honored her wishes. But it took a lot of work, cost about the same as a funeral-home funeral, and it exhausted us at a time when we needed rest and comfort, not party-planning tips.That being said, here’s an overview of ours:
We held the funeral on the private lawn of a condominium located on Lake Michigan in Chicago. Chicago happens to have a thriving Swedish community with several Swedish caterers; we ordered up a proper Swedish smorgåsbord, accompanied by wine (no one was in the mood to make proper Glögg — a specialty of my mom’s and no, that Ikea mix will simply not do), beer and soft drinks. A Norwegian friend showed up with some Aquavit, which he didn’t pass around so much as administer.
Our Viking ship was in a place of honor on the lawn to invite remembrances and private moments among the attendees. We encouraged family and friends to write farewell messages on note paper and place them inside the boat to keep our mom company on her journey to Valhalla (or at least give her something to read).
After sharing remembrances and stories from family and friends, my brothers and I carried our boat down to the water in a procession that was led by a Swedish accordionist (my middle brother’s idea) and followed by all our family and friends carrying tiki torches.
We placed our ship in my mother’s beloved Lake Michigan and pushed it away from shore. I had already prepared arrows wrapped in soaked rags, which my brothers and I lit afire and shot at the boat. Eventually, it caught fire and carried our mother away.
Then we lit a bonfire on the beach and got drunk on Aquavit and red wine. Mom would have been so proud!Here’s what you’ll need to send your own Viking to Valhalla:
1. A Viking
Dead, cremated: We placed our dead Viking’s cremains in a wooden box marked with Swedish rosemalia, a decorative folk painting technique our mother practiced in her lifetime. We made sure the box had no shellac or other substance that would make it hard to burn. (It was tied with a ribbon because there was no latch, and we didn’t want our mom wandering off on a random breeze before the funeral got underway.)
2. A Viking ship
To support 7-8 lbs. of human cremains + approximately 2 lbs. of memento-kindling, you need a boat that is a minimum of 1.5 meters in length to prevent it from sinking.
My talented older brother and his wife found a prop canoe on Craigslist and adapted it with balsa wood, paper plates, and a “buttload” of staples into an impressive replica of an Oseberg ship.
Note I: If the boat has not been floated in a while, fill it with water and let it sit for 6 hours. Dried-out wood acts like a sieve and your boat, instead of burning, will become water-logged and nigh-impossible to set on fire. This happened to us.
Note II: We opted against a mast and sail, but according to the same older brother, “A mast and sail would be good to have, mainly as a larger target for the arrows. Looks cooler, too. The mast should be as long as the interior of the boat and the yardarm should be just a little shorter. The clews of the sail can be tied to the gunwales.” (He is a licensed sea captain and always talks that. Sorry ladies – he’s married!)
Mementos, trinkets, talismans. We used stuff that was important to our Viking during her lifetime, such as straw Swedish goats (from Ikea!) and a Dreamcatcher. All of this served the dual purpose of keeping with Viking tradition of sending the deceased off with totems to assist in the passage to Valhalla, and acting as kindling to assist in the boat’s burning.
My family is very ecologically minded, so we were careful to choose items that we knew would either burn easily or cause no harm to the environment during decomposition.
4. Torches and/or bows & arrows
We used tiki torches from Home Depot (reusable at summer barbecues!), and ordered children’s bow & arrow sets from Amazon. For the arrows, I tied old rags around the tips, securing them with a knot or duct tape to the shaft so they wouldn’t slide down once set on fire. I tested the weight of the arrows and arc of flight with the rags beforehand so I could save my brothers and myself from embarrassing ourselves with terrible aim.
Note: That totally didn’t happen! Not a single arrow actually landed on that boat, although, as my youngest brother points out, our aim was perfect… if we had been aiming for the lake. But, in truth, I forgot to inform my brothers — and had forgotten myself — one of the little tips I picked up on the Internet about shooting flaming arrows: the light from the flame on the arrow blinds the shooter. There is a workaround, but it’s best to research it. Do NOT use explosives such as gunpowder or gasoline. Good alternatives are citronella oil and lamp seed oil. Also, the first arrow to hit and ignite will not also launch the boat. Unless your name is Einar, son of Ragnar and brother to Tony Curtis, and your boat is magical. You can also just use the torches to set the boat alight before launching it.
5. Flammable liquid
We used lighter fluid on the rags tied to the arrows, which worked out quite well because we only doused them right before lighting them. However, we doused and re-doused our ship with lighter fluid, but added it too soon and it completely evaporated well before we set the ship to sail. Our fireman friend says whale oil would be ideal (!! you think he would care about whales, being a fireman and all), but lacking that, kerosene or diesel would also be good choices. Just be extremely careful.
6. Body of water
We used Lake Michigan because, well, it was right there. And it is also big. And watery. Because of the size of your vessel, you cannot use a swimming pool, small pond, puddle or stream. Reservoirs should also be avoided. If you have access to a private lake, this would be ideal. Short of that, a private beach can do but check with your local authorities (or make friends with your local authorities, whichever is easier).
7. The ceremony & wake
This was the most difficult part for us, as we had to do absolutely everything, from finding and taking bids from caterers, to ordering all the event supplies, to organizing parking and accommodations, and pulling the moon into the right corner of the sky. No, we didn’t really do that last part, but when you’re grieving AND planning a funeral party, that’s pretty much what it feels like.
Because our mom’s funeral wishes included “bonfire on the beach, cheap wine, party” (seriously), we chose to hold the entire event outdoors. We rented the following items to make the ceremony and wake as comfortable, classy (notwithstanding the cheap wine) and celebratory as possible:
Heat lamps & tent: Our funeral was in November. In Chicago. On the lake. We had to plan for inclement weather, although, of course, it turned out be unseasonably warm and sunny, but whatever. Mic & portable sound system: For speechifying and ambient music. Port-o-potty: There were no publicly accessible toilets at ground level for our older guests who may have had difficulty with flights of stairs. Chairs: For sitting during the speechifying. Friends: We didn’t really rent these, but we did need to call on friends so that we could ensure someone was on location when equipment was delivered and set up, as well as to make sure things weren’t running out, or running over time; and to help clean up at the end. We didn’t pay them, but we sure try to pay them back in love, gratitude and kindness every time we get the chance.
We also needed to be able to recommend accommodations for guests traveling to Chicago, as well as arrange for transport and parking. And, of course, we had to create a ceremony — decide together the steps to follow and the timing — and find easels to display photos and the program, and figure out where to tell people to send flowers. Uffda!
We lucked out on a lot of things: the condo belongs to a good friend of my mom’s and is north enough up the lakefront to be more or less outside the gaze of pesky city officials and Oprah. It also helped that this friend is the former president of her co-op, and could secure the lawn for our service with no hassle. My mom was an artist, so she already had a stash of easels, poster board and colored markers that we used. And my dad has spent many, many years in the field of catering management, so his expertise could be tapped for the logistics of the rental equipment, quantities of food and drink, and necessary large event contacts.
Between the core group of family and friends, we knew three cops and two firemen – they kindly alerted their colleagues, on the down-low, about our event so we wouldn’t be hassled or stopped. Or arrested. They’re not the most legal of funerals, these Viking send-offs, although laws differ state to state. Still, it helps to have a couple of friends on the force, especially when one of your firemen pals has the foresight to bring his giant fireman wader boots (or whatever the official term is for them), so he can wade into the lake and properly set your waterlogged ship on fire.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. My mom was dearly and widely loved, and her funeral was as unique and open and creative and funny as she was. It has woven itself into the arc, the story, the legacy of her life – the end of her rainbow, both fitting and blessedly final. But if she were alive today, I would tell her this: If you love me, let me use a funeral home.
Also, I would have ordered less herring.