My good friend the embalmer is not noted for halfway utterance, nor for half-tones in her vocabulary. She calls a spade a spade and hits you with it if she thinks you’re wrong, thwang thwang. She’s never less than invigorating.
One of the themes she warms to hotliest is that of the present reinventing the past. “What do they think is so new about that?!” she’ll expostulate in response to some new funerary trend. “It’s all been done before!!”
Quite right. So it has. Personalisation, for example. Everyone’s talking about that — unique funerals for unique people. Turns out the Vikings were doing it more than a thousand years ago.
They were more like us than you might think, the Vikings — and I’m not inviting comparison here with Friday night revellers in our city centres.
For starters, they had no defined religion. Instead, according to Professor Neil Price, Chair of Archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, they “made up a set of spiritual beliefs, which were then acted out at the graveside … They were aggressively pagan and strongly anti-Christian.”
Just like so many of us.
Possibly more emotionally sophisticated. Professor Price observes “how slim they perceived the boundaries to be between life and death”. We haven’t got there, yet.
He talks about burial rituals which became a form of theatre lasting up to ten days, during which mourners told stories about men and gods — stories “intended to provide the deceased with a poetic passage into the next life,” stories which predate the sagas and may even be the progenitors of Norse mythology.
We haven’t got there, yet, either, but the trend towards more participative funerals is, er, a move in the right direction.
As for personalisation, they benchmark it. “No two graves were the same,” says Professor Price, who has studied thousands. “Some bore evidence of a military career, with whole ships containing the corpse left open. Other graves were found to have had animal remains – one had no fewer than 20 decapitated horses – and occasionally there were human remains as well. Some Vikings were buried with their wives and families; others were laid to rest in more simple single graves.”
Way to go.
It turns out that the Vikings’ reputation for raping and pillaging is unmerited. They were actually far more interested in poetry and spirituality. A medieval English chronicler, John of Wallingford, observed that they combed their hair every day, washed every Saturday and changed their clothes regularly. He meant it disparagingly.
We’ve a long way to go to catch up with our forefathers. Indeed, you could say that Viking funerals illustrate how the forward march of our civilisation has in fact been a retreat into fear and impotence.