Viking Funerals: Prayers, Pyre & Traditions

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If you don’t want to be traditionally buried or cremated, you might envision yourself having a Viking funeral. And that probably means you want the type of Viking funeral you’ve seen in the movies. 

We all know how it works: the warrior’s body floats out into the sunset on a carved longboat, adorned with jewels, mementos, and possibly a sword or two. Attendees stand in reverent silence as a skilled archer sends a flaming arrow to magically set the whole thing alight. 

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Unfortunately, that’s not how actual Viking funerals happened. But Viking funerals were still intricate and ritualistic affairs. And it’s relatively easy to replicate a historically-correct Viking funeral in modern times.

Alternatively, you might choose a more showy send-off, similar to all those Viking funeral movie scenes.

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Viking Views of Death and Dying

In understanding Viking funerals, it helps to look at how Vikings viewed death and dying. 

These are the core beliefs behind the rituals they conducted when a warrior fell or a member of the community passed away. 

Viking Halls of the Dead and Valhalla

The Vikings had a general perception of the afterlife that was made up of different “halls of the dead.” 

Historians haven’t nailed down exactly which Vikings went to which hall, and why, according to the lore. But we do know some details about the most common halls of the dead.

The goddess Freya, for example, was thought to welcome many of the dead into her hall, called Folkvang, or “field of the people.” There was also a special underwater hall for Vikings who died at sea. 

But by far the most well-known Viking “hall of the dead” is Valhalla. Afterlife-living in Valhalla was ideal for a Norse warrior: wolves guarded its gates, and gleaming shields protected its ceiling. 

All day, the dead in Valhalla were said to battle each other. Each night, their wounds would heal. 

Rebirth

In some Norse texts, rebirth or reincarnation comes up as a possibility. Some historians think the ancient Norse and Vikings believed the dead could be reborn as a descendant. 

There’s also evidence that the Vikings thought family members stayed together, both in the afterlife and in reincarnated lives. 

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Viking Funeral Traditions & Protocol

If they didn’t burn bodies in ships, how did the Vikings conduct their funerals? 

Ancient Norse funerals for free men and women were highly-ritualistic and, at times, theatrical. 

Funeral rites began with preparing the body. The Vikings draped their dead in clean clothing and often adorned them with jewels. The next step in a Viking funeral was usually cremation on a funeral pyre. Then, the deceased’s fellow Vikings would dig the grave, and the funeral feast would take place. 

The funeral festivities could carry on for days and feature several feasts. 

Tip: If you're planning a virtual Viking funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still partake in the traditions below. Talk with your funeral director or event planner to see what rituals they can adapt for a live stream.

Eligibility for a funeral

Any free Viking could qualify for a traditional Viking funeral. However, those who were high-ranking or well-respected amongst their fellow Vikings had more elaborate burials and funerals.  

For example, a respected warrior could have his cremated remains buried inside a beloved longboat. 

An exception to the rule is slaves, who were not given the respect of a Viking funeral. Instead (if they weren’t sacrificed and cremated alongside their masters), slaves were buried in shallow graves without any fanfare. 

Pyre

The image of a body going up in flames isn’t completely inaccurate to Viking culture. But the burning took place on land, rather than on a longboat at sea.

A Viking funeral pyre could get hot enough to cremate a body and reduce it to bones and ashes. It’s thought that the Vikings believed the smoke helped carry the deceased to the afterlife. 

After cremation, the ashes would be placed in an urn or carved box for burial.

Typical prayers

The Vikings were strictly Pagan, and their funeral ceremonies reflected those beliefs. 

Vikings would offer prayers to Odin and other gods, depending on the person and their place in society. If a great warrior had passed, his fellow Vikings would likely pray and chant to help him find his way to Valhalla. 

Words spoken

At a Viking funeral, respected members of the community would have bid the deceased farewell and wished them an easy journey to the afterlife. 

Depending on the person’s level in Viking society, only a few words would be spoken, or speeches might go on for hours. These words of commemoration and well-wish would take place during the ritualistic drinking of the funeral ale. 

Nordic funeral music

No matter how the body of a Viking was buried, the funeral service was always much the same. It nearly always included Norse funeral songs. 

We know that music was an important part of Viking culture because archeologists have discovered many Viking-age musical instruments. However, the Vikings lived before the technology of writing existed, so any music that still exists from that time was passed down orally.

Examples of authentic Viking-age songs are rare, but they are known to have been worshipful of the Pagan gods. 

Human sacrifice

As briefly mentioned above, it wasn’t uncommon for the Vikings to sacrifice a slave — or two or three — when a respected Viking died.

The Norse poem, Sigurðarkviða hin skamma or “The Short Lay of Sigurd” describes how this human sacrifice should take place: 

Bond-women five
shall follow him,
And eight of my thralls,
well-born are they,
Children with me,
and mine they were
As gifts that Budhli
his daughter gave.

Viking Burial Customs 

The most common type of burial in Viking culture began with cremation on a pyre. Some members of Viking society didn’t benefit from these rites, though, and burials could be elaborate or more simple.

Location or boat

The Vikings might not have set a longboat to sea and set it on fire as it traveled downstream. But boats and vessels were still an essential part of many Viking funeral traditions. In Norse mythology, boats represent safe passage to the afterlife. 

As mentioned previously, high-ranking Vikings were often buried inside their ships within burial mounds. Alternatively, the community might arrange rocks in the shape of a ship where the warrior was buried. 

In contrast, a young child or mother might undergo cremation and a simple burial in a mound or a family gravesite, without all the bells and whistles. They might be buried alone or with other cremated remains in a group burial mound.

Grave goods

Vikings often went to the grave or to the funeral pyre with goods of all sorts. The value of those goods depended on the individual’s status in society and their wealth. Grave goods ranged from weapons and glass beads to human slaves. 

Female Vikings often had oval brooches adorning their burial or cremation clothes. Anthropologists believe the brooches represent their wearers’ position in society and the tasks they performed in life. 

Viking Funerals: FAQs

Maybe you want to plan a Viking funeral for yourself or a loved one, or you’re just interested in Norse culture. Either way, you might have some of the frequently asked questions below. 

Where is it legal to have a Viking funeral?

Many aspects of a historically-correct Viking funeral are illegal today (human sacrifice is a good example). You can’t just set up a funeral pyre and burn a body yourself, which may or may not affect your ability to reach Valhalla. 

However, you can still arrange many aspects of a Viking funeral, including cremation and burial with important mementos. You could even commission a boat-like casket for the burial. 

Alternatively, you could find or create a traditionally-styled Viking longboat and use it for the funeral only. Decorate it in true Viking style, fill it with personal items, and place the cremated ashes inside.  

If your goal is a movie-style Viking funeral, you may be out of luck. If you don’t own a private beach or body of water, it’s unlikely your local laws permit the burning of a corpse on public land. 

How do you start planning a Viking funeral?

If you want to plan a Viking funeral, first decide whether you want a historically-accurate celebration or one that’s more theatrical.

As mentioned above, unfortunately, you can’t go full Boromir. But check your local laws to see what’s possible: you may be able to send your loved one’s ashes out on the water in a traditional longboat. You might even be able to light some kindling.

If a movie-style Viking funeral is your end-goal, make sure you speak with local officials and funeral service providers to avoid breaking the law. Chances are, they’ve gotten the question before.

What popular movies and books feature Viking funerals?

If you want to gather inspiration for your Viking funeral, check out these movies and books: 

  • The Vikings
  • Beau Geste
  • Rocket Gibraltar
  • Beowulf
  • The Fellowship of the Ring (both the book and the movie)
  • A Song of Ice and Fire

Viking Funerals: Fact vs. Fantasy

The trope of a Viking death-at-sea has been a mainstay in popular culture for a reason. It’s theatrical and over-the-top, but it also uniquely honors the dead. 

If you want a full-fledged Viking funeral, make sure you follow all of the applicable laws and be as safe as possible. And if you would prefer to be historically accurate with your Viking funeral, you’ll want to avoid flaming longboats altogether. 


Sources 

  1. “Viking-Age Burials, Beads and Gender Views.” Real Archeology (Vassar College). 11 November 2018. pages.vassar.edu/realarchaeology/2018/11/11/viking-age-burials-beads-and-gender-views/
  2. Doughty, Caitlin. “Wherein Mercilessly Slaughter Your Dreams of a Viking Funeral.” The Order of the Good Death. 22 October 2012. www.orderofthegooddeath.com/wherein-i-mercilessly-slaughter-your-dreams-of-a-viking-funeral
  3. Kahlich, Susie. “Guest Post: How to Send a Viking to Valhalla.” The Order of the Good Death. 20 January 2012. www.orderofthegooddeath.com/guest-post-how-to-send-a-viking-to-valhalla
  4. “Death and the Afterlife.” Norse Mythology for Smart People.” norse-mythology.org/concepts/death-and-the-afterlife/
  5. Samundar, Edda. “The Poetic Edda Volumes 1-2.” Princeton University Press. 1936. books.google.com/books?id=0NqzAAAAIAAJ

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