Here in America and in most of Canada, we have funeral traditions that have stood the test of time for decades, even centuries.
But our traditions are vastly different from those in other countries and cultures.
This article looks at Viking funeral traditions and is part of a series that highlights how different cultures care for their dead. Other parts of the series are about Maori funeral traditions and Swedish funeral traditions, among others.
Norsemen Funeral Rituals
During the Viking age in the 8th to 11th centuries, a group of people called Norsemen lived in Scandinavia, which consists of the countries Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and sometimes other countries are included such as Finland and Iceland. The Norsemen, meaning men of the north, had their own Norse pagan religion with specific burial customs and rituals when taking care of their dead.
The Norsemen believed in the existence of nine worlds, Asgard and Helheim being the two associated with housing the dead. Asgard is similar to heaven as it’s where the honorable dead and those who were warriors went, while Helheim or Hel is where the dishonorable dead ended up. Those in Asgard either went to Valhalla known as “the hall of the slain” ruled by the god Odin or Folkvangr known as “field of the host” ruled by goddess Freyja.
There were certain burial rituals the Norsemen followed to ensure the deceased would make it to the afterlife. There was a fear associated with death as families worried the deceased would try to return, so they sometimes cut off the deceased’s head, put a stake through them, or took other precautions to prevent them from trying to return to their family. If the family saw a revenant (ghost) or draugr (undead creature), they believed more deaths in the family would occur.
If the deceased was a great warrior or member of the aristocracy, they were usually buried in their longship, a type of ship created by the Norsemen for trade and warfare, that was either buried or set on fire and sent out to sea. However, most of the deceased were buried in ship-shaped burial plots marked by stones.
The Norse Viking funeral involved the deceased being cremated at the burial ground on top of a funeral pyre, and a tumulus, mound of soil and stones, would be placed over the gravesite. They believed the higher the smoke and the hotter the flame, the closer the deceased was to Valhalla.
The deceased was buried with their belongings and other grave goods that they may need in the afterlife such as weapons and even animals. Women were buried with their jewelry and tools for household activities. Sometimes a thrall, or slave, was sacrificed at the burial, so the deceased would have a slave to serve them in the afterlife. The thrall was buried in a hole in the ground without a gravestone.
On the seventh day after the death, everyone celebrated with sjaund, the funeral ale and feast, that included a ritual drinking since the heirs couldn’t receive their inheritance until after drinking the funeral ale.
Burial Sites Today
Many Viking-age burial sites can still be found today in the Scandinavian countries the Norsemen lived in. Some remaining burial sites are Lindholm Hoje in Aalborg, Denmark; Borre Mound Cemetery in Horten, Norway; and Gettlinge Gravfalt in Oland, Sweden.