In popular imagination, the old Norse people sent their dead to the afterlife in boats. Sometimes the dead were buried in ships, sometimes buried in graves in the shape of a ship, or maybe had their corpses launched to sea in burning ships.
But there were seemingly different customs in different families. Instead of sailing away, the dead might go to live in a particular place. They might even continue to live on the family farm in a mortuary house atop a burial mound, or in a cairn.
I’m leaving out cremation here, because cremation by itself doesn’t tell us anything about the soul’s destination, except insofar as we accept the theory that people who worship earth gods practice burial, while people who worship sky gods prefer tend to prefer cremation.
Discovery in Norway
In recent news, a mortuary house has been discovered in Norway (see link below). This type of find is fairly unusual, although probably mound burials were (probably) the standard practice.
According to Medievalists.net, “In pre-Christian times, it was not unusual to believe that the dead lived in the mound, and that the living should take care of what they called the people of the mound. This would involve bringing them gifts and food, so that in return they would ensure that the crops were good and that both animals and humans were fertile. People may have believed that if the deceased had their own house in the mound, there would probably be a greater chance that they would stay there, instead of wandering around, tormenting people.“
The house is on the small side, about 9′ x 15′ but tall enough to stand in, suggesting that its use was more symbolic than practical. Project manager Richard Sauvage is quoted as saying, “We can see that the house once stood in the middle of a burial mound. That’s how we know that there probably was a grave inside the house,“
I wonder if there would be a separate house for each burial, or whether one house would serve an entire family.
Dying Into the Mountains
My personal choice would be going to live in a nearby mountain. In Iceland, a particular family believed they “died into the mountain”. In other words, after death they lived on inside the mountain. Their particular mountain was Helgafell (“holy mountain“).
The idea is described in Eyrbyggja saga. When Thorstein Codbiter dies, the saga says: “That same harvest Thorstein fared out to Hoskuldsey to fish; but on an evening of harvest a shepherd-man of Thorstein’s fared after his sheep north of Holyfell; there he saw how the fell was opened on the north side, and in the fell he saw mighty fires, and heard huge clamour therein, and the clank of drinking-horns; and when he hearkened if perchance he might hear any words clear of others, he heard that there was welcomed Thorstein Codbiter and his crew, and he was bidden to sit in the high-seat over against his father.“
For many years I liked the idea of being buried in Farson, Wyoming, near my grandparents. I used to say I wanted to spend eternity being part of the spectacular sunsets over the Wyoming Range. After I read Eyrbyggja saga, I thought I might rather “die into the sky” at Farson. I might still do that, no matter where I’m actually buried. Isn’t that the essential idea behind scattering someone’s ashes in a favorite place?
Then, years later, I had a dream where I sat up drinking with and talking to my mother’s father. He is buried in Eden Valley Cemetery near Farson, Wyoming, but we were in the cellar where the house at Farson used to be. I had no sense of any physicality, nothing to describe about how it looked. In the way of dreams, I just knew that’s where we were.
In the meantime, we keep a spirit house on top of the bookshelves. Ours has an Asian style. I wonder if we should make something more Scandinavian.
- “Erbyggja saga“, chapter 11, Icelandic Saga Database, visited Oct. 22, 2019.
- “Viking Age mortuary house discovered in Norway“, Medievalists.net, visited Oct. 22, 2019.
- Archaeology Soup, “Archaeo-Chat: Viking Mortuary House?” (Oct. 13, 2019), YouTube, visited Oct. 22, 2019.
- Marianne Hem Eriksen, “Viking homes were stranger than fiction: portals to the dead, magical artefacts and ‘slaves’” (Mar. 13, 2019), The Conversation, visited Oct. 28, 2019.
- Christie Ward, “The Walking Dead: draugr and Aptrgangr in Old Norse Literature“, Viking Answer Lady, visited Oct. 22, 2019.
Revised Oct. 28, 2019 to add link.