Some people think that a Viking funeral would be a great way to say goodbye to a loved one. This great idealized gesture is totally influenced by the movies produced by Hollywood studios.
As the movies portray it, the Vikings dispatched their honored dead by placing the body in a boat and setting the vessel on fire with flaming arrows. Let’s trace the history of this notion through the cinema.
First Appearance: Beau Geste
Cute gesture(1939-Not Rated) stars Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and Robert Preston as three brothers on the run to join the French Foreign Legion. In a childhood flashback, the brothers are playing with toy boats in a pond. The eldest Beau (played by a very young Donald O’Connor) knights his younger brother John and promises him a Viking funeral.
They take one of the toy boats and place a toy soldier on a matchbox. “Wait a minute! A Viking always has to be buried with a dog at his feet,” says Beau. A toy dog is taken out of the studio and added to the pot, matches are struck, and the pot is dropped.
They stand at attention with their hats off as Brother Digby blows his trumpet in the last salute afterward as the ship sinks in flames. “That’s what I want when my time comes,” says Beau.
Great idealized vision: the Vikings
The Vikings (1958-Not Rated) stars Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis as two fighting Viking half-brothers. This great costume drama ended with the Viking funeral that was idealized in popular culture. “Prepare a funeral for a Viking,” intons Tony Curtis after the hand to hand fight that leaves Kirk Douglas dead.
At sunset, the community gathers by the sea with lighted torches already lit. In a coffin made of shields and spears, four Vikings in war gear carry his body to a boat on the shore. The Vikings put his body on the deck and leave.
The huge striped candle falls into place. An archer dramatically shoots a flaming arrow toward the sail, and the boat is adrift. Other archers join in, shooting arrows at the departing ship as the music rises, the sun sets, and the ship is completely engulfed in flames.
A later version: Rocket Gibraltar
Rocket Gibraltar (1988-PG) stars Burt Lancaster as the patriarch of a large and dysfunctional family who gathers at his beachside home to celebrate his 70th birthday. His eight grandchildren ask him what he wants for his birthday. He tells them without ties, without socks, that he wants a Viking funeral. On the beach at night, he describes how the Vikings said goodbye to their honored dead, as depicted in the 1958 film.
Children are inspired by grandfather’s vision. They find an abandoned rowboat called the Rocket Gibraltar, arm it with a striped sail, and adorn the bow with driftwood.
On their birthday, the children discover that their grandfather passed away from a heart condition while taking a nap. When the big party starts, the kids smuggle Grandpa’s body out of the house. They hijack the catering truck to take the body to the beach and give him his Viking funeral.
When the parents finally realize what is happening, there is a mad rush to the seashore. They arrive on the scene to find that Grandpa is already on fire. Surprisingly, they do not discipline their children for what they have done. They just sit and watch that fool burn.
Other Visions: Eulogy and the Living Wake
Praise (2004-TV Rating for Mature Audiences) is a comedy that brings together another dysfunctional family for the funeral of a wayward patriarch. In this ending, the family carries the body in a coffin on a rowboat to a pond.
The twin brothers’ grandchildren drill holes in the grandfather’s coffin, pour gasoline inside, and shoot arrows at the boat from a distance. In this case, there is a big bang that is very satisfying.
The living wake (2007-PG) is a black comedy that follows the last day in the life of K. Roth Binew, a self-proclaimed artist and genius. After learning of her impending disappearance, he is eager to have a Viking funeral for her farewell. Stop by your local funeral home to see if one can be arranged. The indignant funeral director tells him to take his business elsewhere.
Binew expires as scheduled in his final live performance. His best friend Mills Joquin takes the body to a pond, transfers the coffin to a boat, sets it on fire, and gently pushes it away from the dock.
Explosive Authenticity: Carpet Kingdom
Carpet kingdom (2008-Not Rated) is a comedy short about living and dying authentically. It begins when great-uncle Grover dies unexpectedly and is buried with a traditional funeral. On the visit, his nephew Owen spies on one of Grover’s war buddies by placing a small pistol in Grover’s jacket.
Unbeknownst to Owen, Grover’s three war buddies had pledged to each other that when their time came, they would give each other a Viking funeral. Once he finds out about this, Owen finds a way to give his uncle that big send-off.
The veterans and Owen carry the coffin to the shores of Lake Erie and into the water where it floats in the shallow water. One of the veterans, who is on oxygen, asks, “How are we going to set it on fire?”
Owen grabs the man’s oxygen tank and puts it in the coffin with his uncle. Owen retrieves the gun and, in a final showdown witnessed by everyone at the funeral, shoots the coffin. It explodes in spectacular fashion.
The last line, from the veteran who now has no oxygen, is “I don’t want a Viking funeral. I want the kingdom to be taken to me!”
The truth about Viking funerals
Despite these Hollywood depictions, Viking funerals and cremations took place on land. Rituals, including burial and cremation, varied throughout the Viking era of Scandinavian history, roughly AD 790. C. to 1066 d. C. the afterlife.
When the body was cremated on a boat, the boat was parked on land. Vikings were often burned or buried with their personal belongings. There are many examples of Nordic cremation sites and cemeteries throughout Scandinavia.
In some cases there were human sacrifices. A slave, a woman kept in a drunken stupor, raped by the men of the clan and set on fire with the deceased, was part of the funeral ritual. Think about it the next time you hear the word “enthralled.”
So every time you watch a movie with a burning ship in water, know that this representation of a Viking funeral is at sea.