Basic Elements of an Asatru Funeral Service
by Chris Haviland
The following is a basic listing of common elements in a modern Asatru funeral service. It is not an exhaustive list, nor does it answer all questions for any situation. Death, like life, is as varied and multi-faceted as any human experience, and each funeral service should be tailored to the specific requirements of the situation.
Firstly, remember that Asatru is a religion of the living – not a cult of the dead like some religious practices. As such, Asatru funeral services are for the living as much as they are for the dead. Consider the needs of the living that will attend the service when constructing the final service. For example, if the service is primarily for the comrades of the deceased (such as a military group) – you may wish to emphasize the heroic elements of death, whereas if it is a service for a young child the message should more of comfort and the continuity of the soul.
Secondly, Asatru is a religion of deeds, and remembering the deeds of the individual should form a large part of the service (obviously, children may not have accomplished deeds, especially the very young, so it is desirable to focus on memories of the joy they’ve brought). One caution for anyone performing an Asatru funeral is that whoever performs the ceremony must be familiar with the deceased, if at all possible – do not fall into the trap of a generic, unfeeling, ceremony as one often sees from so-called mainstream religions. It is better for someone who is a total novice to perform the ceremony, than for a stranger to perform it.
Thirdly, Asatruar do not fear death – there is no evil to torture them in the afterlife, only rest, joy, and healing. It is living that is hard, much of what comes to man cannot be prepared for or avoided – only met honorably and with determination.
Determine the desires of the deceased with regard to inhumation or cremation – when depositing grave goods, it is important to know how they will be used. For inhumation, the goods will typically be buried with the deceased, and the deceased should be groomed (preferably by his or her family) and arrayed in clothing they loved, with grave goods arrayed about them. These goods should/could include: swords, weapons and/or tools that they have had a high affinity for, domestic equipage, food, a drinking implement like a horn, jewelry, and the like. In the case of a cremation, the grave goods should be burned and interred with the remains, or else buried with them. If the body cannot be recovered, the goods may be ceremonially deposited in a bog or burned and buried.
A thorshammer must be given to the earth, buried, or burned for every Asatru funeral. This is the symbol of our faith, regardless of the individual’s affinity for another deity, and a potent symbol of hallowing and rebirth.
Ideally, a rune stone or graver marker should be raised for the deceased – in the Viking age this was done rarely, and only for those who merited it. In the case of a soldier killed in war, this is the highest honor that can be paid them. A rune stone can be raised many years after the funeral, so this is not properly required for an Asatru service.
Music can be a powerful part of the funeral experience. There are many fine modern Scandinavian recordings that convey the sadness of a funeral. If the deceased was particularly fond of certain folk music, a selection of these should be played.
Hallowing – The space in which the funeral is to take place must be hallowed with a hammer (or by hammer signing). Particularly, the body of the deceased must be hammer signed if it is present.
Introduction – If non-asatruar are present at the funeral, it is desirable to place the ceremony into context. This should be tailored to the life and wishes of the deceased.
Reading – Typically, a portion of the Poetic Edda is read to open the memorial portion of the service – most often, Havamal 76 is read:
Cattle die, kinsmen die,
one day you die yourself;
I know one thing that never dies-
the dead man’s reputation.
Memorial – People who have known the deceased should stand before the group and speak about the life and deeds of the deceased. Ideally, this is done by raising the farvel or memory cup and drinking a toast to the their memory. In an intimate setting, a horn or cup might be passed around and everyone speaks about the deceased or simply toasts them. It is appropriate at this point if the deceased left significant unfinished work or responsibilities behind them for their friends and family to give oath to see those responsibilities completed in their name. For example, if they leave a wife and children behind, it is appropriate to take oath to see them cared for, It is meet and fitting that those gathered sing songs about the deceased composed for the occasion, laugh at remembered moments, cry tears at their loss, recite poetry they loved – in short, to remember them well.
Final Prayer – Many people have come to love the Norse prayer recorded in the memoirs of Ibn Fadhlan, most recently used to good effect in the movie “The Thirteenth Warrior”. Of course, another prayer may be used here, but I have included it in the generic service because it is so well received. At my brother Jason’s service it was copied out on a pamphlet and distributed to all in attendance, and the speaker lead them in reciting it together. It was very powerful, and helped bring everyone together.
“There is an ancient prayer among our people, uttered by those facing death, let us pray –
Lo’ there I see my fathers.
Lo’ there I see my mothers, my sisters, and my brothers.
Lo’ there I see the line of my people back to the beginning.
They call to me.
They bid me to take my place amongst them, in the halls of the Gods,
Where the Faithful and True live on forever.”
Closing – It is desirable at this point to say a few words to close the ceremony. A simple statement of love and respect, one that underscores the eternal nature of the soul and life is appropriate here. At a minimum, close the ceremony with the phrase: “The rite is ended, but the folk go on”. Below find an example of a generic closing statement:
“We will never forget you and we will always love you. We wish you peace and healing. Come back to us when you’re ready – and until we meet again, rest safe and sound in hands of the Gods. Farewell! The rite is ended, but the folk go on.”