When it comes to unique funeral traditions, no one does it quite like ancient Vikings. We’ve all seen depictions of Viking funerals in movies…the longboats with the deceased laid reverently across the prow as a fiery arrow is shot to the deck, the rafts with huge pyres that burst into flames at sea. It’s romantic and dramatic and a proper sendoff for a warrior culture that so many people these days glorify.
Of course, the reality of Viking funeral plans is that it probably almost never looked quite like Hollywood would like us to believe. The cost of longboats and other seacraft was much too high to simply send everyone off in a blaze of glory. Most people were buried (when the weather permitted) or were cremated in a regular funeral pyre on land. The boat sendoffs were likely only used for the very high ranking leaders or for ship captains who actually owned the vessel that was lit on fire—and even then, only after the body was already cremated on land and the ashes placed on the boat.
Cremation Requirements in the United States
For those of us who can think of nothing cooler than to bid farewell to this world on a ship with flames licking into the sky, there are going to be a lot more hurdles to cross than you think. According to national regulations, a body must be cremated at a temperature of between 1,500 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two hours. Wood fires (especially those on the water) cannot physically reach this level of heat for the right amount of time, which means that the body won’t be reduced to ash and is therefore not properly disposed of.
These cremation regulations (not to mention Naval laws, health and sanitation initiatives, and simple courtesy for other boat-faring families) mean that you can’t dispose of a body by sending it to sea and lighting it on fire. However, if you have your heart set on Viking traditions, there are few things you can do.
- Traditional high-ranking Viking funerals cremated the deceased on land first and then sent a separate burning pyre out to sea. Assuming you have the right permits, you too can dispose of cremated ashes in the water, and you might even be able to set fire to a small raft with the cremated ashes and a few personal trinkets on top.
- If you want to be disposed of in a real funeral pyre (the large, outdoor fire), there are a few places in the United States where this can happen. Open-air cremations are expensive and must be done in keeping with legal requirements with cement barriers all around, but there are facilities you can turn to for this service.
- You can also look for a Viking-style urn or other burial container. Nordic style stoneware makes a great and unique cremation urn that embraces the same general feeling. (You can also host a great, Nordic-themed memorial service or funeral reception.)
As is the case with any funeral planning efforts that go against the grain, be sure and talk with local officials and funeral service providers to make sure you’re meeting all local regulations regarding safe body disposal. Viking funerals might seem like a big, explosive party waiting to happen, but due to contamination issues and fire hazards, this is one funeral tradition that has fallen out of popular practice for a reason.