To the modern imagination, the Vikings conjure images of dragon-headed longships and the wild, and blonde, badass warriors who made them. Viking funerals are iconic in movies and literature.
The Vikings have fascinated people for centuries, as they represented rebellion, lawlessness, getting rich, and ‘sticking it to the man’. However, a lot of what we think we know about Vikings today sadly has in fact been fabricated over time.
So you want a Hollywood style-Viking funeral?
A ‘Hollywood style’ Viking funeral pyre would be logistically impossible and completely illegal in all but one state, Colorado. But having an authentic Viking funeral is actually legal as cremation or burial on land or sea to emulate Viking funeral rites and customs is a real possibility in the USA.
In all honesty whether or not you or your loved one can have a Viking funeral really depends on your grasp of how the Vikings, or how Scandinavians from the Early Middle Ages, disposed of their dead.
If your dream Viking funeral is based on a scene from a Kirk Douglas movie, it’s best that you stop reading now. However, if you are an avid Scandiboo, then read on to find out just how you could organize a real Viking funeral.
So why no burning longship?
Let’s clear this up right away. If your dream is to be cremated and set adrift on a flaming Viking boat surrounded by food, ale, and some of your other favorite things, while your friends and family have a party to celebrate your life, as they watch you float gently out to sea and onto Valhalla, I’m sorry to say- this won’t be happening.
The truth is that because it is very difficult to cremate a body properly, it would be impossible to do it on a boat, on the water.
Crematoria will burn a body at nearly 2012 °F (1100 °C) for over two hours, and then still have to grind down the bits of bone fragments that are left.
It would be impossible to generate that amount of heat by burning wood and a body on the water, not even considering that firing a flaming arrow onto a boat with a dead body would be highly illegal too.
What would happen if you tried, is that you’d end up with a partially burned body, without skin but with its exposed muscle tissue and organs just floating around on the water or, if the boat did burn and sink, then the body parts would wash up somewhere on a beach.
Not a great picture, or a great way to end up for that matter.
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Naval and international laws on dumping bodies in the ocean
Most countries have laws regulating how a body is cremated and disposed of and there are also naval and international laws that restrict the dumping of bodies into the ocean.
Even if the Vikings did manage to get this type of funeral send off right, unfortunately, there is definitely no way your family could logistically get away with it today. If they went ahead and tried regardless, it is likely they would be fined heavily later, and even possibly prosecuted and imprisoned for it.
So what was a real Viking funeral like?
The Vikings had a variety of funerary rituals that would differ depending on their status. Despite the Hollywood depictions, most Vikings were actually sent to the afterlife either by cremation or burial on land.
Cremation (often upon a funeral pyre)
Through the cremation process, the Vikings believed the fire’s smoke would help carry the deceased to their afterlife. Once cremated, the body’s remains were most often buried in an urn.
That sounds fairly routine with the growing popularity of cremation in the United States, but luckily that’s where the similarity between Vikings and American funerals ends.
There are accounts too of human sacrifice. Ibn Fadlan a contemporary describes a scene where a slave girl was given large amounts of alcohol, raped by the men of the congregation in honor of the deceased, strangled, and stabbed before being burned with the deceased.
Now, if you have had a loved one cremated recently, minus the slave girl hopefully, you might want a more long-lasting way to honor their memory. A great option is to get the ashes made into a permanent piece of jewelry, you should check out the beautiful handcrafted pieces Mark Hamilton makes with cremains by visiting his site here.
More often, the Vikings would bury their dead in large burial mounds as the ground in the area was too cold to dig a deep grave. It wasn’t uncommon either to have burial mounds holding multiple bodies. Some of these grave mounds were built to look like Viking longships, with stones used to outline the vessel’s hull.
If someone was wealthy or important, however, they would be put into a boat that was buried, or put into a boat-shaped grave. They were buried with their personal belongings and some grave goods to transport their spirit to Valhalla, and often a broken spear so that the warrior could fight in his afterlife.
In Norse mythology, boats symbolized safe passage into the afterlife mainly because the infamous ‘dragon ships’ had aided their travels and fortune in life. Therefore, these ships played a key role in funeral rites.
How you can have a traditional Viking funeral, legally
As mentioned previously, real Viking funerals are legal, and having one is actually rather simple too. Here’s how.
- You can be cremated, through your cremation of choice – In a crematorium or if you can arrange it legally, on an open-aired pyre in Crestone Colorado.
- You could opt to then be buried in a ship-shaped barrow – or mound, with your treasures and memorabilia, awaiting Valhalla. However, this is probably only possible on your own land. See my article on burial on private property for more details.
- A meaningful, Viking themed ceremony could also be arranged. It could be held anywhere, even outdoors in a garden or a forest. The Vikings celebrated life after a person’s death.
Although it would be impossible to have the type of Viking cremation/send off on a flaming boat that we see in movies, a traditional Viking funeral is quite possible to arrange, through prior cremation.
This being said, you don’t actually have to be buried on land. It is possible, although more complicated, to opt to be buried at sea or even possibly to instead have your ashes burned on a small-sized replica boat (Amazon).
Burial at sea
Burial at sea is legal under certain circumstances, but subject to laws. However, the rules surrounding what’s legal in international waters is hard to ascertain. Here is a link to the US maritime limits & boundaries.
The EPA (the United States Environmental Protection Agency) may issue special permits, research permits, emergency permits, and general permits for ocean dumping.
They have issued a general permit to authorize the transportation and burial of non-cremated and cremated human remains at sea, under specific conditions. The general permit is published in the federal regulations at 40 CFR 229.1
- Additional information about ocean dumping permits.
- Contacts in EPA Regional Offices for burial at sea inquiries.
What is not allowed under the MPRSA general permit for burial at sea.
- Placement of human remains in ocean waters within the three nautical miles from shore.
- charts across the openings of bays and rivers.
- Placement of non-human remains (such as pet remains).
- Placement of materials that are not readily decomposable in the marine environment, such as plastic or metal flowers (see my recommended florists) and wreaths, urns, tombs, tombstones, gravestones, monuments, mausoleums, artificial reefs, etc.
- Any such activity would require an application for an MPRSA special permit.
All of the above information is provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency
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The alternative to the Hollywood style Viking funeral.
It is possible to have a Viking-style send-off with a small replica of a boat, and the cremated remains of the deceased.
As mentioned above, however, ashes can only be placed in the ocean three nautical miles from land.
If you are able to get this far out, you could technically burn the ashes at sea, however, you’d have to make sure all of the materials are biodegradable as anything placed in the water must easily decompose in a marine environment.
Alternatively, you could do your send-off on a pond or a lake as most public spaces do allow it, and scattering ashes isn’t subject to the same laws. But you will have to make sure of this first.
You could also burn something important of the deceased’s, a lock of hair or a photograph instead of the ashes.
If you choose to make the boat yourself, make sure it is flammable and lightweight. However, you can order your own Viking longship urn.
Where to buy a longship urn
Find this floating model Viking longship on Amazon.
You can actually order your own biodegradable Viking boat. Simply place the cremated ashes into the hull of the boat and then have the send-off you have dreamed of! Alternatively, you could bury it, just as the real Vikings would have done.
Check out these two websites:
Build a cardboard Viking Longship
If you are particularly handy, you could build your own Viking Longship to house human remains in before they are re-cremated. There are many materials you can go for from wood to wicker, but cardboard seems the easiest and most accessible to most people.
Or just go with a green burial
The Vikings would have kept their burials very simple and there wouldn’t have been fancy caskets inside, so why not emulate them in this way and have a green funeral?
Green burials are becoming more popular and aim to impact the environment as little as possible. Not only do they cost a whole heck of a lot less, but they are also actually closer to the way that Scandinavians in the Viking age would have buried their dead.
You can find out more about green burials in a more in-depth article I wrote here.
What would a viking say at a funeral?
We actually do know what might have been said at a Viking funeral. You can say the following Viking prayer and really connect with those ancient people who went through the same loss and celebration of life you and your loved ones are.
The Viking prayer.
Are funeral pyres legal in the US?
Open-air cremations, or funeral pyres, are mostly illegal in the USA. For the most part, they are considered taboo, however, Crestone, Colorado is the only place where open-air cremations are legal in the United States.
In Maine, there was a proposal put forward to legalize the practice there, in a limited capacity. Only time will tell if this will become an additional location for open-air cremations in the future.