The Truth About Viking Funerals on Film

May 11, 2020 | 0 comments

In today’s Coronavirus Cinema Collection, we’re looking films that feature Viking funerals. Some folks think a Viking funeral would be a cool way to send off a loved one. This idealized grand gesture is totally influenced by films churned out by Hollywood studios.

Coronavirus Cinema Collection: Viking Funerals on Film

Gail Rubin, the Doyenne of Death, continues the Coronavirus Cinema Collection of YouTube videos, film recommendations for hunkering down at home. These movies entertain while educating about funeral planning issues and planning ahead for end of life.

As a character in the 2007 film The Living Wake describes it, “The Vikings used to put the carcass on a boat, light it ablaze and cast it out to sea.” Where did this idea come from? Two films give us the history.

First Appearance: Beau Geste

Beau Geste DVD cover

Beau Geste (1939-Not Rated) stars Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston as three brothers who run off to join the French Foreign Legion.

In a flashback to childhood, the brothers are playing with toy boats on a pond. Beau, the oldest (played by a very young Donald O’Connor), knights his younger brother John. Beau thinks a Viking’s funeral would be a great way to go.

They put a toy man on top of a box of matches on the toy boat, along with a dog figurine at the feet of the deceased. Then they set the box of matches, and the boat, on fire. This idea of being set ablaze with a dog at your feet plays a role toward the end of the film.

Grand Vision Idealized: The Vikings

The Vikings DVD cover

It wasn’t until the 1958 film The Vikings that we see Hollywood’s grand vision of a Viking funeral that became idealized in popular culture.

The Vikings stars Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis as two brawling Viking half-brothers. This grand costume drama ends with a mano-a-mano fight that leaves Kirk Douglas dead. Tony Curtis intones, “Prepare a funeral for a Viking.” (A clip is included in the YouTube video.)

This vision of the Viking funeral has been referred to in a number of subsequent movies.

The Legend Lives On: Rocket Gibraltar

Rocket Gibraltar poster

The 1988 film Rocket Gibraltar stars Burt Lancaster as the patriarch of a large, dysfunctional family that comes together at his beachside home to celebrate his 70th birthday. His eight grandchildren ask him what he wants for his birthday. He tells them no ties, no socks, he wants a Viking funeral. On the beach at night, he describes how the Vikings would send off their honored dead, just as depicted in the 1958 film.

The kids are inspired by Grandpa’s vision. They find an abandoned rowboat, named Rocket Gibraltar, rig it up with a striped sail and embellish the bow with driftwood.

On his birthday, the kids find Grandpa has expired from a heart condition while taking a nap. As the big party gets underway, the kids smuggle Grandpa’s body out of the house. They hijack the caterer’s van to take the body the beach and give him his Viking funeral.

When the parents finally figure out what’s up, there’s a mad dash to the seashore. They arrive upon the scene to find Grandpa’s already up in flames. Remarkably, they don’t discipline their children for what they have done. They just sit down and watch that sucker burn.

Explosions in Eulogy

Eulogy DVD cover

Eulogy is a comedy from 2004 that brings another dysfunctional family together for the funeral of a wayward patriarch. In this ending, the family takes the body in a casket on a rowboat to a pond. Twin grandsons are in charge of giving grandpa his Hollywood Viking funeral. (A clip is included in the YouTube video.)

In addition to these films, you’ll see variations on the Viking funeral on water in The Living Wake from 2007, the short film Carpet Kingdom from 2008, and the 1995 film First Knight, starring Sean Connery as King Arthur, who dies at the end.

The Truth About Viking Funerals

Despite these Hollywood depictions, Viking funerals and cremations were held on land. The rituals, including burial and cremation, varied throughout the Viking Age of Scandinavian history, approximately 790 A.D. to 1066 A.D. For wealthy or important individuals, a boat, a cart or horses were buried with the body, as a means of transporting their spirit to the Great Beyond.

When the body was cremated in a boat, the vessel was parked on land. Vikings were often burned or buried with their personal belongings. There are many examples of Norse cremation sites and cemeteries throughout Scandinavia.

So, whenever you see movie with a flaming boat on the water, know that this depiction of a Viking funeral is out to sea.

Other Coronavirus Cinema Collection recommendations feature Funny Films for Funeral Planning and “Based on a True Story” movies. Subscribe to this channel for more videos with film suggestions.

About Gail Rubin, CT

Gail Rubin, humorous motivational speaker for hospice
Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®

Funny films can help break the ice about serious subjects – medical care, end-of-life issues, estate planning, and funeral planning. Certified Thanatologist Gail Rubin is a death educator who brings a light touch to serious subjects with humor and clips from movies and television shows that help audiences learn and remember important lessons.

Her presentations qualify for continuing education credits for medical professionals, hospice and social workers, attorneys, financial planners, funeral directors and other professionals who need CEUs. Look for the seal of continuing education credit approval from the Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practice.

Gail Rubin, The Doyenne of Death®, offers a number of film presentations in 60- to 90-minute sessions and longer workshops, both in person and through online webinars. And yes, she does have a license from the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation to legally show films to the public.

A Good Goodbye