Funeral Home or Funeral Ship? A Viking Way of Honoring Death

Posted on April 1, 2017 by MayFuneral under Blog Posts
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Funeral Home or Funeral Ship? A Viking Way of Honoring Death

Most of us have imagined what our funeral would look like in the event of our death. Some of us see our family visiting a funeral home to prepare for our burial or cremation, but would you believe that it was once a common practice amongst Vikings to sail their dead out to sea?

While the Vikings also practiced burial and cremation, the ship burial was exclusively for the most high status individuals. Some believe that the ship was set on fire before setting sail, but many artifacts have proven otherwise. It was most common to practice the ship burial, or Norse burial, by including the entire ship, the body of the individual post cremation, and the individual’s belongings. It’s an interesting method for dealing with grief, but one that evidently proved powerful considering its longstanding practice.

So, what did these ‘belongings’ include and why were these so important to keep with the individual? In one recovered boat found in Ardnamurchan and thought to be over 1,000 years old, archeologists uncovered an axe, a spear, a shield, and a ring pin. Other miscellaneous items included a bronze drinking horn, a whetstone from Norway, Viking pottery, and other unidentified scraps of iron. This specific discovery is thought to be linked to a Norse warrior. It is interesting to note that many uncovered artifacts have proven many females warriors were honored with the same services as men. Unlike the simple visit most of us make to a funeral home to pick out a casket or to hand over a body for cremation, the Vikings had a very different response to one’s loss of life.

Now that you know who and what was included in the ship before it set sail, which was most often robbed or never to be seen again, what is the meaning of all of this? Why put all of this effort into honoring a lost life when you could, say, visit a funeral home and conduct honorary services there without investing so much time? Believe it or not, the Vikings held a lot of meaning and carried out the services with a lot of precision. Ibn Fadlan, a 10th Century Arab traveler a writer, described the symbolism behind Norse Warrior funeral services. While many actions were taken simply to avoid desecration of the body, such as cremation, many things were done purely because of superstition.

Many believe that the boat might have stood as a stage for funerary drama where the importance of the individual, often a chief or a warrior, were symbolically acted out. The importance of the individual also led to differences regarding the belongings of the individual and the location of ship. The services were carried out to send the individual to the next realm and to help reduce the grief of loved ones.

As you have probably discovered by now, the ‘funeral home’ was a foreign concept to these individuals and there was really no simple way of carrying out funeral services for the life of a Norse chief or warrior. The only way to truly honor death for these individuals was to send them out to sea with their belongings and hope that they smoothly transition into the next realm.


May & Son funeral home has helped families and loved ones through the grieving process for more than a century. We have locations in Columbia, Boonville, Sedalia and serve the Fayette Missouri area. To find out about how to plan ahead, contact us today.


The funeral business that became H.T. May & Son was founded in Boonville in 1911 by Riley Martin; great-great uncle of Tom May. Following the death of Riley Martin, his nephew; Holwell J. May took over the reins of the business and continued to operate it until his death in 1974. After the death of Holwell, his son H.T. May began to run the business. When H.T. died in 2005, son Thomas E. May began to run the business and is now the fourth generation to operate May Funeral Homes. The newest location, in Columbia, opened in April 2009. Thomas, was married in November 19 of 2011 to Pastor Jennifer Baker. Jennifer is a pre-need specialist for the business and currently pursing her funeral directors license. Thomas also has two sisters; Kathryn May who is a licensed funeral director and Melodia Whitmore. Thomas has three children; Holwell J. May II, who graduated from KCKCC with his Mortuary Science Degree, and is now a licensed Funeral Director and Embalmer, Brittany N. May, and Jeremiah Baker. May and staff are are dedicated to serving families from all ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs in a personalized manner, with knowledgeable, caring, and professional staff.

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