Death has always been a part of life and it is the prize everyone has to pay for the gift of life, nobody understood this better than the ancients, who lived in a time of wars, famines, wild animals, cold winters, diseases, and other threats.

Because of this threats the average age that humans reached in that time was about 40 years, unlike in our modern culture death was not always seen as something negative in Germanic society; the Germans lived today and not tomorrow, a mentality which probably coincides with the fatalistic beliefs that dominated their religion; according to Germanic mythology the world would eventually be destroyed at Ragnarök, the gods would die and the entire universe would cease to exist, for everything and everyone there was a beginning and an end.

The Ragnarök belief was very strong in Germanic society, and most people lived as if every day was their last, "Ragnarök" means "doom of the gods" and not "godshimmer" (English), "götterdämmerung" (German), or "godenschemering" (Dutch), which are all three incorrect translations.

The Germans believed that a human consisted of 2 parts; the "Lika" and the "Saiwalo" (Proto-Germanic) or "Likh" and "Sal" (Old Norse), the Lika (body, corpse) was the mortal body that stayed behind in this world when the person died and the Saiwalo (soul) was the soul that went to the afterlife, the Dutch and German words for "dead body" are still "lijk" and "leiche", while the Scandinavian languages all use the word "lik", which are a remnant of this belief.

The Germans also believed in reďncarnation which made them less afraid of death, the only thing they were afraid of was that the dead would come to life again to haunt them, this belief is very old and already existed before the Germans ruled northern Europe, this is proven by (among other things) a Pre-Germanic sword that has been found in a rich gravehill in the Netherlands which was bended and broken before it was laid in the grave as grave-gift to make sure it could not be used by the dead person in case he came alive again.

Spirits of dead persons who did not go to the afterlife but instead stayed in the human world were called "Draugr" in Old Norse, they did not necesserily have to be evil because that depended on how the person was during his mortal life.

The dead were treated with respect though, and during battles the Germans always tried to take their fallen comrades with them, no matter how heavy the battle was raging around them; a good example is the Vandal king Gelimer who insisted on burying his brother Ammatas during a heavy battle with the Romans and lost the battle because of that.
The belief in the afterlife was very strong and sometimes horses, cattle, pets, servants, or even the partner of the deceased were killed and layed next to him or her in the grave or on the funeral pyre because they were believed to need this animals or persons in the afterlife, for this reason a person also got his weapons with him, the only tribe that did not had this custom and buried its dead without weapons were the Goths.

Using humans as "gravegifts" was not very common though, and even when this happened it was mostly done on a voluntarily basis, for instance if the wife of a man who had died did not wanted to be separated from her loved one she sometimes decided to go with him; the only exceptions to this rule were slaves and defeated enemies, archeologists once even discovered a Germanic grave which contained 93 Roman hands which had been cut off and were placed next to the body as tropheys.

Although some examples of early Germanic coffins have been found they were not used often in Germanic funerals, though a more frequent use of coffins was later introduced under Christian influences, some beautiful examples of Germanic coffins have been found in Scandinavia which show a mixture of Christian and heathen influences but originally the body was mostly laid in the grave without a coffin, often under a blanket or in a foetus position.

The way death was viewed in Germanic religion is well described in the Edda:



Hávamál:

Betra er lifđum
en sé ólifđum,
ey getr kvikr kú;
eld sá ek upp brenna
auđgum manni fyrir,
en úti var dauđr fyr durum.

Haltr ríđr hrossi,
hjörđ rekr handar vanr,
daufr vegr ok dugir,
blindr er betri
en brenndr séi,
nýtr manngi nás.

Deyr fé,
deyja frćndr,
deyr sjalfr it sama,
en orđstírr
deyr aldregi
hveim er sér góđan getr.

Deyr fé,
deyja frćndr,
deyr salfr it sama,
ek veit einn
at aldrei deyr:
dómr um dauđan hvern.
It is better to live,
even to live miserably;
a living man can always get a cow.
I saw fire consume
the rich man's property,
and death stood without his door.

The halt can ride on horseback,
the one-handed drive cattle;
the deaf fight and be useful:
to be blind is better
than to be burnt:
no ones gets good from a corpse.

Cattle die,
kindred die,
we ourselves also die;
but the fair fame
never dies
of him who has earned it.

Cattle die,
kindred die,
we ourselves also die;
but I know one thing
that never dies,
judgement on each one dead.

Sigrdrífumál:

Ţat rćđ ek ţér it níunda,
at ţú náum bjargir,
hvars ţú á foldu finnr,
hvárts eru sóttdauđir
eđa eru sćdauđir
eđa eru vápndauđir verar.

Laug skal gera,
ţeim er liđnir eru,
ţváa hendr ok höfuđ,
kemba ok ţerra,
áđr í kistu fari,
ok biđja sćlan sofa.
This is thee counsel ninthly:
that thou corpses bury,
wherever on the earth thou findest them,
whether from sickness they have died,
or from the sea,
or are from weapons dead.

Let a mound be raised
for those departed;
let their hands and head be washed,
combed, and wiped dry,
ere in the coffin they are laid:
and pray for their happy sleep.

In Germanic society there were two types of funerals; cremation and burial, of which cremation was the most common one.



Cremation:

A good description of the cremation of a Viking king can be found in the "Risala", an account which has been written by the Arabian explorer Ibn Fahdlan, other good descriptions of cremation customs can be found in the Beowulf saga.

A dead body was laid on a pile of wood, the bodies of famous men were burned with particular types of wood but what types this were is unknown, the funeral pyre was either placed on a ship or on an altar, though this depended on tradition and location, sometimes a wagon was also used.
The dead person was then surrounded with his or her personal belongings, weapons, and some food which the person would need for his or her journey to the afterlife, after some rituals the pile was lit (in the case of a boat it was often pushed into the water after it was lit), after the funeral there was some mourning but also celebrations in honour of the deceased; too much mourning would be inappropriate since the person was now in a peaceful afterlife (Helheim) where he or she was received by friends and family members who had already passed away.

In the oldest cremations the ashes of an important person was placed in a gravehill, the ashes of less-important persons were often buried in an urn, a special type of urn was the "face-urn"; an urn with a human face on it which represented the dead person.



There were many different forms of cremation:
  • cremation and placing of the ashes under a gravehill
  • cremation and dispersal of the ashes
  • cremation and dispersal of the ashes into water
  • cremation and burial of the ashes
  • cremation and placement of the ashes in an urn
  • cremation and burial of the ashes in an urn
  • cremation of a body and ship together
  • cremation and burial of the ashes in an intact ship
Of course this are only some examples, there were many local variations of this customs.

Burial:

Another type of funeral was burial; this custom was already used in northern Europe during the Stone Age and some good examples are the megalithic tombs and gravehills that scatter the northern European landscape, the stone gravechambers that were used by the Funnelbeaker culture like for instance the Hunebeds were replaced by round gravehills, which were on their turn replaced by cremation during the Bronze age, in the Bronze Age burial became less important and was eventually replaced by cremation as the most used form of funeral, during the early Germanic period cremation was the most popular form of funeral and during the early Middle Ages burial became more important again due to Roman and Christian influences, the common people prefered cremation over burial and during the early Middle Ages there has been much resistance against the reintroduction of burial, the Franconian emperor Charlemagne even had to prohibit cremation by declaring it to be a heathen custom and made rules which forced the people to bury their dead instead of burning them.



Charlemagne also introduced the so called "death-roads" over which the dead had to be transported to the cemetary; using normal roads for this was considered to bring bad luck, though the real reason for establishing the death-roads was to keep the people away from heathen sites since many funeral processions still visited ancient gravehills or heathen holy places before they continued to the church.

In some areas the dead were also brought to the cemetary via detours, this was done to confuse the soul of the dead person to ensure that he could not find his house back again and would travel to the afterlife, this custom is probably of heathen origin.

In the "Atlakviđa in Groenlenzka" a funeral- or sacrificial ritual is mentioned; before Gunnar's death penalty is carried out he is first put on a wagon which is ridden over the moor in a procession, this was probably done because moor was seen as a transfer zone to the afterlife, Atli also joined the procession on a horse with little bells which may have also had a connection to the afterlife; the Germans believed that some lakes were entrances to Helheim and that bells could be heard on the bottom of those lakes, after the procession Gunnar was thrown into a pit of snakes.
The wagon also fulfilled a role in many funeral processions, just like the ship it was believed to bring the dead person back to the afterlife and at night the "hellewagen" (hel-wagon) was believed to ride through the air with much noise to collect the souls of the dead, during the Middle Ages the people believed that the hellewagen was a tool of Satan which came to collect the souls of sinners, but that was almost certainly a later adaptation.

Another custom was covering mirrors with a cloth during the mourning period, this was either done to prevent more deaths or to keep the restless dead from returning (nowadays some families still do this), this custom probably originates from the belief that mirrors reflect the soul, they were believed to be able to "catch" souls that are departing from their bodies and that they could serve as portals of death, the ancient Greeks placed candles in front of mirrors if they wanted to contact spirits.

During the Middle Ages bodies were wrapped into a shroud which left only the face visible, in Saxon dialects this shroud is called "hennekleed" (death-cloth) and people used it twice in their life; they married in it and were buried in it, this custom was probably of Christian origin and continued into the Renaissance Age, the body was also laid on a wooden plank called "lijkbord" (corpse-board) in Dutch, from this plank the body was shoved into the grave, later the plank was decorated with death symbols and placed next to the door of the house in which the person had died where it remained until after the burial.

In Scandinavia there were also rules about how a dead body should be taken out of the house; instead of carrying the body out through the doors the people made holes in the walls through which the body was brought outside, this holes had to be so big that the body fitted through it in full length, after that the body was brought to a proper place for burial (which was bound to certain rules) and was correctly placed into the grave, after that certain rituals had to be performed; this was done to prevent the dead person from becoming a "genganger" (see spirits), if a person did came back he or she had to be dug up again and the burial had to be performed again.



In a burial the personal belongings of the dead person were laid besides him; grave gifts were very common in Germanic culture and many graves often contained valuable objects like jewellry and weapons.

The head of a Germanic grave always faced north because the heathen religion situated the afterlife (Helheim) in the north, after the Christianization of Europe graves were orientated towards the east (in the direction of Jerusalem) but this is a later Christian influence.
Burial mounds and rune stones were often raised on top of graves or cremated remains to create a monument in honour of the deceased, a person was not considered "lost" as long as he or she was remembered by the living; honouring your ancestors was very important in Germanic religion and many people kept visiting the grave to leave offerings, flowers, or to inform the deceased family member about the latest events.

Nowadays many people would laugh about this custom but you would be surprised to see how many people still visit the grave of a loved one to leave flowers or even speak to him or her, it is a way to cope with the loss of that person and it shows the love one had for that person during his or her life, I think it is an honour to a person to even be remembered after his or her death.



The newspaper article to the right was published in the "Metro" on April 17, 2001.

Here is a translation;

"Archeologists find gravefield from Iron age
Nijmegen Nijmegian archeologists have found a gravefield from the Iron Age in Lent in the Over-Betuwe. In fifteen of the thirty graves found lie a total of sixteen skeletons. In the other graves lie the remains of cremated humans, something which was much more usual then burial in those times. According to the municipality the archeologists are delighted about the finding. Skeletons from the Iron age are not found very often. The finding makes it possible to learn more about the way of living of humans in the period of 800BC to the year zero."


The Afterlife:

In Germanic religion there were different forms of afterlife:
Most people went to Helheim, also named Hel, Hella, or Hela (or Haljô in Proto-Germanic), the modern word "hell" is also derived from it though it was not the evil fiery place as we know it today but a peaceful and tranquil afterlife where everybody went to after death, nowadays the word "hell" is associated with an evil place for sinners because the Christian Gehenna was renamed into Hel to demonize the heathen afterlife.

The afterlife was originally named after Hel, the godess of the underworld.
Kings, nobles and warriors who died in battle went to Walhalla, (also named Valhalla, Walhall, or Vallöl) "Walhalla" means "Hall of the Fallen".
Whenever there was a battle there were Valkyries riding above the battlefield; the English word "Valkyrie", the Dutch and German words "Walküre", and the Scandinavian word "Valkyrja" are all derived from Proto-Germanic "Walakuzjo", which means "Chooser of the Fallen".
During a battle the Valkyries chose the best warriors who were to die in the battle (in some versions of the lore they only collected their bodies) and took their souls with them to Walhalla, the souls were then divided between Freya and Wodan.

The dead who were given to Freya went to her hall Folkvang, the ones who were given to Wodan went to Walhalla.

Wodan (or Odin) had his own elite army in Walhalla that was named "Einherjar", which means "Lone warriors" or "Single-combatants", the Einherjar were formed by Wodan to fight the forces of evil at Ragnarök, Wodan knew that the fate of the world was already sealed but he wanted to be able to at least die fighting, and he could always try to postphone Ragnarök by winning the battle time and time again.

Traitors, murderers, child molestors, cheaters, thieves, and other criminals went to Naströnd ("Corpse-beach"), a place of suffering that was located in Helheim, the godess Hel decided who would go to Naströnd and who could immediately enter Helheim without punishment, in Naströnd a person was subjected to punishments and torture as well as tests; these tests were to determine how "evil" the person was.

After this tests Hel decided whether the person had to stay in Naströnd forever or that he deserved another chance, in that case he was allowed to enter Helheim.

People who died at sea were believed to go to the hall of Ćgir, the god of the sea.

Reincarnation:

The Germans believed that when a person died he would enter the Afterlife where he could rest and meet his ancestors who had not yet reincarnated, after that he got the choice of staying in the Afterlife or being reborn and live again; thus reincarnation was not an obligation but a choice.
When a person chose to return to the world of the living he would be reborn into the bloodline of his family, so for instance the soul of a deceased grandfather can be reborn into a son of his own children, it is also possible that your child is a reincarnation of an ancestor who lived thousands of years ago, or that you can be that ancestor yourself without knowing it.

Children were sometimes named after a deceased relative to invite that ancestor to be reborn into the new child, the Germans did not believe that they created a new soul when they got a child; they just created a new body for one of their ancestors just like they had done for them; the body (Lika) was different in every life but the soul (Saiwalo) remained the same.
A good example of the reincarnation belief are the Scandinavian legends of Helgi; every legend tells about one of his lives; he is born, lives, and dies, after which he is reborn in the next story, in most lives Helgi and the woman he loves meet eachother again in some way or the other, maybe their love for eachother was so strong that their souls are destined to be together eternally.





Spirits:

The Germans also believed in spirits, these could be either good or evil; evil spirits sometimes tried to frighten or even harm the living while good spirits could aid the living; lots of people went to the grave of a deceased grandmother to ask her advice and it was believed that the dead could still interact with this world by visiting it in a ghostly form, so staying in Helheim instead of reincarnating did not mean you would miss any of the action on Midgard.

Another form of spirits were the Dísir; this were spirits of dead female relatives who sometimes warned, punished, or helped their family members, the word Dísir was sometimes also used for godesses or other mythological figures like the Nornir (or Nornes).

Not all spirits were wandering souls of the dead, there were also nature spirits who were considered living beings that consisted of energy instead of mass.



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