The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Finding Valhalla

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A friend writes. She is to be interviewed for the talking wireless. They’re going to want her take on Viking funerals. What, she wonders, are my views on Viking funerals? Can you, I wonder, help?

Interesting territory. We think of the classic Viking funeral as a blazing longship, bearing the corpse of a chieftain, drifting slowly and spectacularly across the sea. This is mostly myth. Where immolation took place in a longship it normally happened on dry land. The ship would customarily contain grave goods of all sorts, of course, we’re comfy with that, but it would also contain, often, slaughtered horses and servants. We’re not quite so comfy with that, and not just because we read the Guardian or suffer from servant envy.

And while that was one way the Vikings did funerals, the blazing longship, they weren’t one-trick ponies, they had others besides, and I’ve blogged about them. Here.

History be damned. There’s nothing more subversive of mystery and wonder than party pooper facts. What’s interesting is what survives: the glorious myth. And what’s interesting about the glorious myth is that it continues to exert such a strong hold on our twenty-first century imagination.

Why?

Because it meets so many of the needs of the living. Those needs are timeless, of course. They are aesthetic, emotional, spiritual and practical.

In terms of practicality, a holocaust is a good way of disposing of a dead body. Beyond that, it is spectacular. The flames rise (vertically) to the heavens as the wind fills the longboat’s sails and it journeys (horizontally) to the horizon in a way which mirrors the words of the Christian prayer: “But as thou didst not lose them in the giving, so we do not lose them by their return. For not as the world giveth, givest thou, O Lord of souls: that which thou givest thou takest away: for life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only the horizon, and the horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”

There is compelling emotional and spiritual appeal in this imagery, of journeying, transition, transfiguration and consummation (deliberate pun). The spirit rises as the craft moves over the face of the waters; that which is earthly is subsumed by the sea. All the elements are present: earth, air, fire, water. And there is an inexorable dynamic.

Is it that we yearn for Viking funerals because modern funerals fall so dismally short on all fronts? They do. don’t they? Above all, they lack movement, and we especially need to rediscover that. Burial still meets lots of needs if there is a strong element of processional. Cremation, on the other hand…

So perhaps we should apply a Viking test to all funerary rites. This would produce interesting results, especially at a time when we are looking for an alternative to cremating dead people in incinerators. What do you think a Viking would say if you tried to interest him or her in cryomation? Sorry, I don’t know the ancient Norse for the predictable expletive, but you know its translation.

All of which leads to the conclusion that instead of looking for smart technology to dispose of our dead we need something altogether more retro. The solution to the problem of the dismal industrial cremator suddenly becomes crystal clear.

The open air funeral pyre.


Please add your helpful thoughts about Viking funerals in a comments box below. Oh, and click on the pic above to make it bigger.

FOOTNOTE: Read about the Viking funeral of Tal Stoneheart, brother of the Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik, here.

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