Thanks to archaeology, sagas and poetry in Old Norse and the account of Ahmad ibn Fadlan, it is known that the Vikings used to bury their dead in funeral ships.
Rituals that took place on land have enabled archaeologists to study the various Scandinavian traditions of the time in a ship or stone boat, and offerings were left according to the status and profession of the deceased, which could include the sacrifice of slaves.
In Scandinavia, many burial mounds in honor of Viking kings and chiefs are preserved, as well as rune stones and other funerary monuments. Some of the most famous are in the burial mound cemetery at Borre in Norway and at Lindholm Høje and Jelling in Denmark.
It was common to leave gifts next to the corpse. Even if the body was burned on a pyre, the deceased received gifts, the amount and value of which did not depend on the sex but only on his or her social position.
It was important to perform the ritual correctly so that the deceased would retain in the afterlife the vital status he had possessed in earthly life, and to prevent him from becoming a wandering soul condemned to wander eternally.
The usual grave for a slave was probably little more than a hole in the ground. He was probably buried in such a way that he would not return to torment his masters and so that he could be of use to them when they had died. Sometimes they were even sacrificed to serve that function in the afterlife.
Freemen were buried with weapons and riding gear. Artisans could be buried with all their tools. Women were buried with their jewelry and sometimes with instruments for domestic use or part of the trousseau.
The most sumptuous Viking burial discovered so far (2008) is the Oseberg Ship, which was for a woman (probably a queen or priestess) who would have lived in the 9th century.
A Viking funeral could involve considerable expense, but the grave and offerings were not considered a waste. In addition to paying homage to the dead, the grave was a monument to the social position of the descendants.
Some particularly powerful Norse clans were able to flaunt their position by means of monumental cemeteries. The Viking cemetery of Borre in Vestfold, for example, is linked to the Yngling dynasty, and housed large burial mounds containing stone ships.
Jelling in Denmark is the largest royal memorial of the Viking era. It was made by Harald Blåtand in memory of his parents Gorm and Tyra, and in honor of himself.
It is only one of two large burial mounds that contained a burial chamber, but both tombs, the church and the two Jelling stones testify to how important it was to mark death ritually during the pagan and early Christian era.
In three places in Scandinavia there are large cemeteries that were used by the entire Birka community in Mälaren, Hedeby in Schleswig and Lindholm Høje in Ålborg.
In the graves at Lindholm Høje there is a great variety of shapes and sizes. There are stone ships and a mixture of triangular, square and circular graves. These cemeteries have been used for many generations and belong to the people.
Death has always been a time of crisis for the bereaved, hence it is surrounded by taboos. Family life has to be reorganized and, to overcome this situation, people resort to rituals. The ceremonies were rites of passage intended to give peace to the deceased in the new life and, at the same time, to comfort the bereaved relatives to continue with their lives.
Despite the warlike customs of the Vikings, there was an element of respect surrounding death and what is associated with it. If the dead person was not buried properly or provided with the means for the afterlife, he or she might not find peace in the afterlife.
The dead person might visit his living relatives as a draugr (ghost) to haunt them. It was a horrific and ominous sight, which was interpreted as a sign that more family members would die. When communities were hit by misfortunes, especially in times of famine, ghost stories began to appear.
The sagas mention drastic remedies to get rid of these ghosts once they had appeared. The dead had to die again; a stake could be driven through the corpse, or the head was cut off so that the deceased would not find its way back to the world of the living.
In the 10th century, an Arab writer, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, gave a description of a funeral of a Scandinavian chief, probably Swedish, traveling on the Volga trade route. The account is a unique source about the ceremonies that took place at Viking funerals of a chieftain or king.
The dead chief was placed in a temporary grave, which was covered for ten days until new clothes were sewn for the deceased. One of his female slaves volunteered to go with him to the afterlife, so she was guarded day and night and given large quantities of drink to intoxicate her as she sang merrily.
When the time came for the cremation, they put the chief's boat ashore, deposited him on a wooden platform and made a bed for him in the boat. Meanwhile, an elderly woman known as the "angel of death" placed cushions on the bed. She was responsible for the ritual.
Then they dug up the chief and dressed him in new clothes. In his grave they placed alcoholic beverages, fruits and a stringed instrument. The chief was placed on the bed with all his weapons and offerings placed around him. Then they let two sweaty horses run, which they then tore to pieces and threw into the ship. Finally, they sacrificed a rooster and a hen.
In the meantime, the slave went from tent to tent having sex with the men. Each of them said to her: "Tell your master that I did this out of love for him". Meanwhile, in the afternoon, the girl was taken to something that looked like a door frame, where she was lifted by the men's palms three times.
Each time she was lifted up, she told what she saw: the first time she saw her father and mother, the second time all her relatives, and the third time her master in the beyond. There everything was green and beautiful and next to him, she saw men and young boys. She saw that her master was beckoning to her.
Then the slave was taken to the ship. She took off her bracelets and gave them to the old woman. She then removed the rings from her fingers and gave them to the old woman's daughters, who had been guarding her.
She was then taken aboard the ship, but was not allowed access to the tent where the chief lay. The girl drank several glasses of alcoholic beverages, sang and said goodbye to her friends.
Then the girl was taken into the tent and the men began to beat their shields so that her screams could not be heard. Six men accompanied her and had sex with her, after which they put her on the boss's bed. Two men grabbed her hands and two others grabbed her wrists.
The angel of death put a rope around her neck and while two men pulled the rope, the old woman stabbed her between the ribs with a knife. Afterwards, the dead chief's relatives arrived with a lit torch and burned the boat. According to the beliefs, the fire facilitated the journey to the realm of death.
Then they raised a round mound on the ashes and, in the center of the mound, erected a birch pole on which they engraved with runes the names of the dead chief and his king. After that they left in their ships.
Slaves could be sacrificed during the funeral to serve their master in the next life. In Ibn Fadlan's account there is a description of a slave girl going to be sacrificed and going through several sexual rites.
When the chief had been put on the ship, she would go visiting the tents to sleep with the warriors and merchants. Each man would tell her that this was out of devotion to the deceased.
Finally, she would enter a tent that had been set up on the ship where six men would have sex with her before she was strangled and stabbed.
The sexual rites with the slave show that she was considered a vessel for the transmission of life energy for the deceased chief.
In the poem Sigurðarkviða hin skamma there are several verses in which it is told that the valkyrie Brunhild gives instructions about the number of female slaves who were to be sacrificed for the funeral of the hero Sigurd, and how their bodies were to be arranged on the pyre, as appears in the following stanza.