Vikings have a particular reputation attached to them. Usually, that reputation is filled with violent acts, pillaging, and an overall rough lifestyle. Viking funerals were no different. History says they resided in Denmark, Norway, and Swedish regions and were prevalent seafarers. There is very little documentation of the Norse people as they did not often record their actions. They reigned during the 8th through 11th centuries as they traded, pirated, and made their impact on the ancient world. However, no matter how they spent their days on earth, Vikings greatly respected life. This may be seen in their funeral rituals, which may seem unconventional, but had thought and soul put behind them.
Most Vikings were either buried or cremated; though those two forms of burial are not seemingly significant or strange, how these acts were done is a bit unconventional. Their idea of cremation was that the smoke would help the decedent move on to the other side.
It has often been said that Vikings would burn actual ships with the deceased person on board. While this did occur occasionally, this form of burial was not as popular as it was once thought to be.
It is said they would bury both bodies and cremated remains. These burials were usually in mounds with multiple bodies or remains in one spot. The graves were typically shallow and were called Grave Fields. The decedent would be most often be placed with their ship in the ground, with their personal valuables with them, then dirt was piled on top.
Of course, ships were always an integral part of their culture. In Norse mythology, it was said that ships took decedents into the afterlife too. Because of this, the mounds or tumulus in their grave fields resembled the shape of a ship. This was done by strategically placing stones around the mounds to create the shape of a vessel. This ritual was usually done when the deceased was not placed in an actual vessel for burial but rather in their grave fields.
It was extremely common for additional gifts to be given to the deceased in addition to their personal belongings. These gifts were known as grave goods and were given to ensure in the afterlife. The decedent would have the same status they did on earth. It was believed if they did not have their grave goods, the person would be subjected to homelessness and doomed to spend eternity wandering aimlessly.
Those who were high-ranking Norsemen were often buried with their actual ship. Some of those ships were exuberant, especially if the Viking was of high rank. Both highly honored men and women would receive burial this way at times. One of the most elaborate burials was in 834 and was on the Oseberg Ship. This was the burial of two women in an extremely large vessel that could fit up to 30 people inside. This ship was found exceptionally well preserved and excavated by a Swedish archeologist.
The Hall of the Fallen or Valhalla was the ultimate afterlife goal for Norsemen. Valhalla was mentioned in poems about two great and honored Vikings around 954 and 961. It was thought that if you met certain honors in life, you would enter Valhalla in the afterlife. In Norse Mythology, it is seen as a privilege to enter Valhalla, and only a few aristocratic individuals were considered able to enter. Also, high-honored soldiers who had been killed were in Valhalla as well. The Viking god Odin was said to be the overseer of the Hall of the Fallen. Valhalla was described as a large, extravagant palace filled with food and drink for all those who resided there.
Whether cremated or buried, many traditions remained in both types of burials. For the most part, Viking funerals were very similar to traditional funerals today.
However, they did have rituals specific to their culture and mythology. One was that new clothes were always draped over the body or remains. They were often buried with valuables, such as jewelry and weapons. Burials were “celebrated” with a lot of food and alcohol.
It has also been noted that, sadly, slave women were often told to get drunk and would be raped by several men. This was said to be done in honor of the dead, who was their master. Once raped, the woman would be killed by an individual, the Norse culture known as the “Angel of Death.” The enslaved person was then buried with their master or placed on their boat. The ritual of human sacrifice ensured that enslaved person could serve their master in the afterlife. If the deceased was identified on the vessel, it was often lit on fire, which may have been where the burning of ships concept stems from.
The Vikings took their funerals seriously and were somewhat afraid of death. In Norse Mythology, it is said there are spirits and creatures of the dead. They believed if the apparition family member in the form of one of those creatures appeared, it meant someone in the family would die soon. One way the Norse thought of avoiding this was to re-kill the body. They would sometimes put a stake through the decedent post-mortem or even cut off their head.
To them, this was not seen as desecrating a body but rather ensuring the deceased could not return to the world of the living.
Vikings were known for their rough and violent lifestyle. Even though a few burial rituals still fell within those lines, the Norse culture honored their dead, ensured they were sent off properly, and viewed the afterlife as a goal to strive for. Of course, Valhalla was the ultimate goal, those who had made it to the Hall of the Fallen had truly accomplished the highest reward. Viking funerals were some of the grandest burials ever known to mankind.
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