There was always a sense of fear of death looming over their heads, and honoring the dead through rituals and ceremonies was considered very important as an attempt to ensure the deceased would gain peace in another dimension.

There were two basic, most common funeral traditions – the deceased would either be buried or cremated. Cremation was usually done upon a funeral pyre, and there was a strong belief that the smoke from the cremation helped the spirit of the deceased move on to the afterlife.

Burials often combined pagan and other traditions, which also had to do with Vikings accepting influences of other cultures, especially when Christianity started to influence Viking culture. 

The burial ritual

The ritual of burial could be described as quite extravagant, as it included preparation of the corpse, i.e., putting on clothes made especially for this occasion, adding different sorts of objects for the deceased to take with them to the afterlife, according to the wealth, social status and profession of the deceased (the so-called "grave goods"), feasting and drinking, and also other more extreme forms of honoring rituals such as chanting, consensual sexual acts, the massive killing of animals and even suicide. 

The duration of such rituals could take up to a week, ending with the ritual of drinking ale, which would mark the official end of the funeral. After that, the heirs would gain the right to claim their inheritance.

The burial mound of the local Viking king Trygve who was killed in 963. Photo: Arvid Høidahl / Unsplash

Ship burials

Ship burial was the Viking practice kept primarily for those of high social status. The deceased person would be buried in the ship, together with their "grave goods," only in this situation this would include a much larger number of objects, sometimes even animals and/or slaves. 

The general belief was that the deceased should be able to continue their way of life in the afterlife, hence burying objects next to the deceased. 

Ship burials allowed a vast number of objects. Some ships, though rarely, were built solely for the purpose of burial and not for use other than a burial, such as travels or battles.

There was a sort of a mix of rituals, of the common burial and the ship burial – a burial of the deceased in the ground, with a tombstone resembling the ship.

Illustration: Robert Katzki / Unsplash

Cemeteries from the Viking era

Throughout Scandinavia, remains of the cemeteries from the Viking era can be found; in Denmark, Sweden and Norway. 

The one in Vestfold, Norway, has remains of such stone ships. The one in Jelling, Denmark, was established by Harald Bluetooth and is considered the largest royal memorial, built in memory of Harald's parents and in honor of himself. Grave fields in Birka, Sweden, unlike the one in Jelling, were used by the whole community, not just for royalty.

It is important to note that ship burials, although reserved for those of higher status, weren't reserved only for men. One of the most extravagant ship burials was performed in honor of two women who died in the 9th century. The ship built especially for this purpose was large enough to take 30 people, 70 feet long, and had 15 oars on each side.

The ships used for ship burials weren't often sent to sea though, and then set on fire by fiery arrows shot from the shore, as the costs of building such grand ships were extremely high. 

This type of burial, with the ship being sent to sea and then set on fire, is often depicted in modern popular culture nowadays. However, it should be noted that this wasn't a common way of honoring the deceased.

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