Coast Guard Assists in ‘Viking’ Burial at Sea

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On September 29, the US Coast Guard gave WWII Vet, Andrew Haines, a ‘Viking-style’ burial at sea. The USCG placed Haines’ ashes on a wooden replica of a viking boat, brought it out to open water, and set it on fire.

A handmade wooden boat containing Haines' ashes burns during a burial at sea Sept. 29. [Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Oldham / USCG]

A handmade wooden boat containing Haines’ ashes burns during a burial at sea Sept. 29. [Petty Officer 2nd Class Cynthia Oldham / USCG]

 From the Navy Times:

[Andy]Haines said his father [Andrew Haines], a World War II veteran who finished his tour at Atlantic City, had been planning his funeral for years. Andrew Haines emigrated from Norway as a child in 1927 and had stayed connected to his Scandinavian heritage throughout his life.

About 10 years ago, Andy said, Haines’ cousin in Norway sent him blueprints for a 100-foot wooden ship, which he scaled down as small as two feet, as a small construction project.

“When I came over to the house one day with the wife and one grandson, we were in the basement, and he’s got the whole bottom shell done with the deck, getting ready to put the rest of the stuff on,” Andy recalled.

Then Andy had an idea. He asked his father if he still wanted to be cremated, and he said he did.

“So I said, ‘How about if we try to make a Viking funeral out of this for you?’ ” he recalled.

Haines built five versions of the ship, his son said, settling on a 54-inch version for the ceremony.

More remarkable, Haines built the boats one-handed. He lost an arm in a 1975 boating accident, which ended his career as a commercial fisherman for Atlantic City Fisheries, the family business.

USCG Burials at sea are free for any US Veteran. Haines, despite the manner of his funeral, doesn’t appear to have been a Heathen. The funeral itself, with the burning ship, may be more a product of Hollywood than known historical practice. Yet this raises the possibility for U.S. Heathens, who are also military veterans, to have a similar funeral. But is this something that would appeal to modern U.S. Heathens?

Nicholas Ritter, Theodish Heathen

Burning-ship burials aren’t well attested, except mythologically, for the god Baldr, but internment in ships or ship-shaped graves does show up in the archaeological record. In my experience, what is done with one’s remains is a matter of importance for Heathens generally, and a lot of thought is given to different combinations of burial and cremation, with grave goods and without, and the funerary symbolism of ships, as well as horses. We’re lucky enough to have good information on pre-Christian Germanic burial practices and beliefs, and I have found that Heathens generally want to have funerary arrangements that fit with how they lived their lives. I would think that most Heathens would be in favor of this kind of burning-ship burial as one option among many.

Laura Anderson, Heathen

This is really neat, and I’m glad he was able to do it. But I’m not interested in a Viking funeral for myself. I’ve always been big on observing natural cycles, and death and decay is a part of that cycle. My ideal funeral would be one where I’m put directly in the ground and allowed to decompose to nourish the spot where I’m buried. I see it in gardening all the time – we create compost piles to spread on our gardens; I allow the autumn leaves to rot where they fall throughout the winter because it’s healthy for the plant life. Continuing the cycle is important to me, and I want my body to contribute. So while a Viking funeral at sea is really cool, and I’m glad that there’s a precedent set for others who want to do it, it’s not for me.

"Sutton Hoo ship-burial model" [By Steven J. Plunkett] Lic. CC Wikimedia.

“Sutton Hoo ship-burial model” [By Steven J. Plunkett] Lic. CC Wikimedia.

David Carron, Redesman of the Troth and modern Ásatrú reconstructionist

I fully support folks doing things like this. To do otherwise would refute his ten years of labor to create his final vessel. The Vikings of old did these kinds of burials for the same reason that we find them fascinating; it’s epic, memorable and requires the involvement of a dedicated community. While I doubt I would ask my family to do something like this for me, due to costs and efforts, I can appreciate it.

Clearly, Mr. Hains was well-inspired and driven to make this happen. The fact that he spent his twilight years of his life, doing this by hand and one-handed, just makes it that much more praiseworthy of a story. I suspect that the ship-board ceremony had more in common with our memory Blots then not. Hail Andrew Haines! Luck to his family.

Bryon Wilton, Heathen

You know I think it’s awesome. I like that a man had enough courage when it came to facing death that he bucked the tide and entered the next realm as he so chose. There is also a county in Colorado that allows for funeral pyres. But you have to get rid of the five 5 gallon bucket of ash and it’s only available to residents of that county. As a veteran I have been content to know I’ll have a mjolnir on my headstone in a national cemetery. But, yes, if I had the money, I would love to have the option of a funeral pyre and I think a lot of people would love to have a Heathen ceremony by boat. I think it’s a good thing that Heathens of all stripes be allowed to celebrate the road to Hel as they choose.

K. C. Hulsman, Heathen, Gythia of Urdabrunnr Kindred

Thanks to film and TV, the thought of a Viking burial on a boat being burnt at sea has caught the imaginations of people the world over, which has led to a common misconception in modern times that this was a commonplace occurrence. In actuality the association of an actual ship with a burial or funeral pyre was something reserved for very special persons, usually those of greater social status, by wealth or power. For most people they were far more simply buried or cremated, and the customs around it varied by region.

One of the few accounts we have of a ship being burned, wasn’t at sea. In the account of the Arab traveler and chronicler Ibn Fadlan, he relays the funerary practices for a chieftain among the Viking Rus. The deceased had been placed in a temporary grave while preparations for the funeral were made. After several days, a ship was pulled to the shore and his body was then laid out upon a bed on the ship. From this point the account can get to be a bit gruesome as it involves the human sacrifice … The boat is set to burn in a pyre-like conflagration, and what’s left is then all buried, right there. So this is a fiery Viking ship funeral, not at sea, but rather on land. So as visually romanticized as this concept is in pop culture, thanks even recently to “Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World,” it just doesn’t appear to have been very common.

Interestingly enough we see people entombed in a boat then buried as in the Oseberg Longship archaeological find. In Lindholm Høje in Denmark, we see graves are outlined by a series of stone markers giving the impression of a ship’s shape. We also have found graves where people were buried in wagons. Scholars and believers alike speculate if there may have been some sort of tradition needed to convey symbolically travel to the afterlife.

While I have no desire to be sent off to the halls of my Gods and ancestors en flambé at sea, even before considering possible safety issues, sanitation concerns or ecological factors for the world at large, I have to give kudos to the Coast Guard for honoring a World War II veteran in fulfilling his final wishes and in the support they provided to the grieving family in making it a reality.

Erin Lale, gythia of Ásatrú and the author of Ásatrú For Beginners

It’s heart-warming that the U.S. Coast Guard would give Haines a Viking funeral that had both personal and cultural meaning for him. Perhaps Heathen veterans will be able to have such a sendoff in the future, too. Asatru, one of the modern sects of Heathenry, recently had its symbol, the Thorshammer, approved by several branches of the U.S. military for use on headstones. Heathens in pre-Christian times practiced several different funeral customs, including cremation in a ship, burial in a mound, burial in a ship, burial in a ship-shaped grave, and cremation followed by burial of the ashes in a mound or ship-shaped grave. Symbolically the ship carries the soul to the afterlife.

Burial Mound "Tumulus Dissignac2" [Credit: Aeleftherios at fr.wikipedia Lic CC]

Burial Mound “Tumulus Dissignac2” [Credit: Aeleftherios at fr.wikipedia Lic CC]

Lisa Morgenstern, member KAP Hrafn Skjoldr Kindred, The Troth

Actually I just performed a funeral for a dear friend of our kindred. Extended family. I performed his sister’s wedding, and as it happens my husband works with his father. He had asked for a Viking funeral. We had a ceremony at the mortuary followed by a wake, and his family hopes to arrange something similar to this for him. Sadly, he did not serve.

I think that scattering remains in this manner is a great way to honor the traditions of burial at sea for those who honor the Norse traditions.

Anthony Arndt, Ásatrú

Would I be interested in something like the Coast Guard’s “Viking funeral”? Absolutely!

Though in my case, as someone who is Ásatrú, an educator, a serious living-history re-enactor, and a family man, I would aim for something a bit more “authentic” while still not necessarily 100% historically accurate.

The reason that I would not want it 100% historically accurate is two-fold. First, this is the 21st century, not the 11th, time has moved on and we should adapt to it just as our ancestors adapted to the changes in their eras. I am an English teacher, and while I may be somewhat mercenary in outlook, I am not literally a pirate.

Second, I may make my living as an English teacher now but my academic background is in early medieval Nordic archaeology, history, and literature and cremation burials are the bane of the archaeologist. Graves are timecapsules and I find that inhumation graves are far more informative of the physical culture of a time than cremation graves.

Now on to what my own ideal burial would look like.

A memorial service is much more for the people who gather to witness it than it is for the deceased. So first I would want them taken care of. I would want plenty of mead, beer, and food for all the family and friends who came. And a good bonfire and live music long into the night.

As far as the body is concerned, if possible, I would be perfectly happy if it was all done quickly and it was my body on the boat. Barring that, my ashes in some sort of body-shaped shrouded straw-man (like the Karls made for some holidays), taking the place of my body would be an acceptable compromise… 

The most controversial part, would be the feast. To provide the meat for the feast. I would want it provided by a proper blót to Óðinn as Vegtam ,”way-tamer”. Though historic sources consistently mention that horses were most closely associated with blót to Óðinn, the type of animal is less important to me. A single, well-cared for animal that would be large enough to provide meat for the feast would be ideal…

As for the boat and fire itself, first, I would want the boat on land not in the water. A high spot on family land, preferably overlooking water. I would want the keel oriented North/South with the bow pointing North. Then the boat would be loaded with the grave goods and kindling … The best and most personal [grave goods] would either be with me when I was cremated or in the boat, the second-best copy in a “treasure horde”, that is to say a proper time capsule …

After the cremation was finished and the time capsule placed, I would want a cairn of stones raised over the ashes, then a small mound of earth covered in raw clay, then a larger mound raised over that and edged with stones. I would want the final mount at least two meters tall at the peak and probably a reasonably flat four by six meter top to it for mound sitting. Then I would want the mount seeded with something … Maybe something like a mix of clover, St. John’s Wort, mugwort, heather, and berries, preferably lingon berries, I would also want some rosemary somewhere for Kira (my wife, she loves the smell of Rosemary). At the peak I would want some type of tree planted, an ash or yew tree that grows well in that area. Then a runestone raised in the style and manner of the old picture stones found in the Nordic lands. Finally, in the area around the land, if possible, I would like to have edible perennial plants which would be appropriate for the kin of the beast that fed my final guests to feed themselves.

A bit more about the “treasure horde.” As a time capsule, I would want a certain amount of important things placed within. Copies of texts that are important to me, like the Elder and Younger Eddas in English and in Old Norse. A book about modern Asatru and its history. A scholarly book about runes … Perhaps some fiction, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Gaiman’s American Gods, and a selection of Pratchet’s Discworld series come to mind. A photo album of some of the more important events in my life with dates. My passport and current driver’s license/identification card. One set of my historical reenactment garb … My reenactment armour and weapons … a drinking horn … A well-sealed bottle of mead, probably with natural cork and coated in a thick covering of wax.