Memo from a Viking Firefighter About Funeral Pyres


TO: Skaftafell Funeral Committee

FROM: Bjorn Sveinsson, chief firefighter

DATE: Tuesday, 938 BC

SUBJECT: Funeral Pyres: There has to be a better way

Brethren, I beg of you: For the sake of our future and our children’s future, please, please stop putting our honored dead on wooden rafts and setting them aflame.

I understand the tradition. I get it, I really do. To this day, tears come to my eyes when I think about my grandfather, Ulfr the Large, setting off on the next journey upon the waters of Lake Auor. He lived to the ripe old age of 34.

viking_festival_2006_470_08_470x312But our traditions won’t matter if we continue to burn down our village every time someone dies. I feel like our forefathers didn’t really think through the whole “funeral pyre” idea: You put a body on a raft, set it on fire, and then push it out onto the lake? Within minutes the current carries the pyre to shore, and we’ve got a forest fire on our hands.

I’m honored that you chose me to lead our elite team of firefighters. We do our best to put out the forest fires before they reach our village. But there is little we can do if we miscalculate the location of the raft. Which we do ALL THE TIME.

In fact, just last week we were all set up along the river in the south hills when the winds pushed Elder Ragnhildr’s pyre directly back into the dock. Three people died at that funeral. Of course, that accident resulted in three simultaneous funeral pyres and three separate fires.

At the last town council, I proposed that we simply not light the funeral pyres on fire. Couldn’t we honor the dead by not endangering the living? Do the dead really know if they’re on fire or not? Perhaps they don’t even want to be lit on fire? We could add this as a question on our Viking driver’s licenses next to our organ donor preference: funeral fire or no fire?

Look, I like a good funeral pyre as much as the next guy. The chanting, the arrow lit aflame and launched into the dark, the light against the horizon…it’s all very langlifis ok heilla.

But I’ll be honest: I’m tired. I can’t maintain this pace. If you haven’t checked, Vikings don’t live very long–we die A LOT. There’s a funeral almost every week, and most of them result in forest fires. I barely see my wife and kids anymore, and when I do they won’t get anywhere near me because I reek of burnt fish.

I respect your decision either way, and I appreciate your consideration.


Bjorn Sveinsson

Chief Firefighter, Skaftafor Clan

12 thoughts on “Memo from a Viking Firefighter About Funeral Pyres”

  1. But Bjorn,
    The ground is too frozen to dig a grave, and if we just leave the body it attracts vermin or pollutes the land/water and like you say we all love a good fire, what else could we do with our dead?
    Axe Grave-Dgr

    • Axe Grave-Dgr,

      Perhaps we could create a stationary fire on land? It would be far more predictable and manageable.



  2. Here’s proof that weird stuff happens at fire scenes.

    I live in a small town and the fire department is 100% volunteer. The volunteer firefighters respond from home/work when there is a fire. About four years ago, I awoke at 2 a.m. when my fire department pager sounded. The dispatcher requested we respond to a house fire with visible flames.

    I jumped in my truck and drove down to the fire station. I happened to be the most senior person to respond, so I got stuck with the officer in charge (OIC) job. Few people like the OIC job because it’s more fun putting wet stuff on the red stuff than it is filling out paperwork.

    On the way to the fire scene I noticed my first problem. All the other firefighters in the engine, other than the driver, were the newest firefighters on the department so I knew I was going to have to watch them all like a hawk to make sure they didn’t do something they shouldn’t.

    We arrived on scene to find a house on fire with the family standing out front (in the middle of the street blocking the fire engine I might add). As soon as I stepped out of the engine, I was accosted by one of the residents. She’s was frantic. I’m not talking the normal frantic that anyone would experience when their house and all their possessions are on fire. I’m talking 3/4 way through insane and one step away from suicidal. I could only understand half of what came out of her mouth, but I eventually understood that her beloved cat was still in the house. Luckily there was a police officer on scene already who I called over to take her away so I could get on with fire operations.

    While doing the scene size-up, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard any more engines call en route, so I asked dispatch to re-page my department and also page the local rural fire department for more manpower. Now, when you’re on a fire scene and you’re the one in charge and your adrenaline is pumping, a few minutes can seem like an hour. It didn’t take an hour to get more firefighters, but it seemed like it did.

    When additional firefighters showed up, half of them had wildland gear on so the only thing they could do was crowd control which I didn’t need at that point since I already had two police and a sheriff on scene. And yes, in a small town, even in the middle of the night, you’ll get a crowd of people that just want to look at the pretty lights which brings me to my next problem.

    Apparently someone in the crowd had epilepsy because he keeled over next to the street in a full grand maul seizure. I can only assume the cause was the lights of all the emergency vehicles on the scene. Luckily, I knew one of the firefighters that had responded by that time had the experience to take care of the medical emergency so I put him in charge of it so I could keep directing fire operations. At least the firefighters who were standing around in the wrong gear now had something they could do other than add to the ever growing crowd of looky-loos I had at my fire scene.

    While working in the house, one of my firefighters found the cat mentioned by the resident. Apparently the cat clawed him up pretty good. Why he took his gloves off inside a house that was on fire is beyond me but whatever. The cat was returned to its owner and the insane resident became a little less insane (temporarily).

    We finally got the fire under control and we moved into mop up so we could work on putting out hot spots. While doing this, one of my firefighters found some illegal drugs in the house. The inexperienced firefighter felt the need to bring a rather large bong out and give it me. At that point, I had to give it to the police officer who happened to be standing next to me.

    Before I had a chance to hand it to the police officer, one of the male inhabitants of the house yelled out from the other side of the street, “Awesome dude! You found my bong. Can you go in and get the other one?” I looked at the officer, then back at the owner of the bong, then back at the police officer and said “This is officially your problem now.” I handed the officer the bong and walked away.

    Awhile later, after the fire was out, we started to look for a possible cause of the fire. I’m not an expert in fire investigations by any means but as OIC, I have to fill out my incident report so I could put this God forsaken fire behind me. One of the boxes I have to fill in my report is the possible cause of the fire. When we arrived on scene, most of the flames seemed to be coming from the small covered back deck, so we started looking there. We found a lot of flammable items such as lighter fluid and cigarette butts there which was what I entered as the possible cause for the fire.

    Later, I mentioned the possible cause to one of the police officers on the scene for his report and apparently the near insane lady overheard. She immediately turned to the man (bong guy) that lived with her and started beating the hell out of him. No, I’m not talking about just slapping and yelling at him. He was on the ground getting kicked by this lady by the time the cops pulled her off of him. As she was being pulled away, she continued to scream at him saying “You burnt down my house!” and “This is all your fault!”

    FINALLY we started to cleaning up and getting ready to clear the scene. The house had a big hole in the middle of it so it wasn’t a livable house at that point. We got the residents setup in a room at a local hotel and they needed to get some clothes for the night. Someone let the near insane lady in the house so that she could get some clothes. She stepped in the house and saw for the first time, the damage caused by the fire and water. She completely lost it, ran out of the house, jumped in her car and started to drive off. Another firefighter and I happened to be standing in front of the car when she began to take off. We both (literally) dove out of the way so we wouldn’t get hit. A police officer wasn’t far off. He charged the driver’s side door and pulled the woman out of the car while the sheriff on scene jumped in the driver’s seat to stop the car from moving.

    At that point I told the remaining firefighters to get in their engines and clear the scene as soon as possible before someone got killed.

    Again, this is 100% true. All of this happened on the same night at the same fire scene and just proves that weird stuff happens at fire scenes.


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