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Burial Customs , Using Water to Bury the Dead

Dating back before the 7th century in England and Iceland, the custom of water burial has morphed into many different meanings over the years. Usually, when people hear about water burials, they think of a member of the military being sealed in a coffin and after a brief ceremony, is sent into the sea. Others may imagine the sprinkling of cremated remains over a body of water.

The act of water burial is an ancient custom that has lost part of its meaning throughout history. The original meaning is often lost somewhere between myth and imagination. In the past, water was seen as a link to immortality in many ancient myths, which is why it became a part of burial traditions. Many believed that water had the power to bring people back to life. In the majority of cases, it was an important person (like royalty or a hero) who was sent off to sea with hopes they would return back to their people , regardless if it was in a different form.

The ancient Norse culture would construct elaborate ‘death ships’ that carried the bodies of their fallen heroes and chiefs. They would set them adrift on rivers and oceans. This custom was especially popular during the 7th and 8th centuries when seafarers from England and Iceland adopted the practice.

Archeologists have uncovered one of these death ships, which shed a great deal of light on the act of ship burials. Excavated at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England, one mound offered the remains of a wooden boat that measured 85 feet long. It was built for 38 rowers that was assessed to have been transported ½ mile from the river and lowered into the ground.

Another excavation took place in Oseberg, Norway, which revealed a rather magnificent Viking ship. This was the first time that archeologists learned that women were also given a water burial if they were high in rank. Inside the vessel, the remains of two females of distinction were found.

However, this is not to say that all water burials centered on the use of a ship, raft, or some sort of vessel. Bodies of the dead who resided in the Solomon Islands were positioned on a reef and left for the sharks to consume. Other island cultures wrapped the bodies of their deceased in cloth and used stones as a weight so they would fall to the ocean floor. Tibetans often tossed the bodies of beggars, lepers, the poor, and babies in rivers and streams as a way to give a quick, inexpensive burial.

To this day, Western cultures still embrace using water as a way to send off the dead. During voyages at sea, when someone dies and there is no way to preserve the body, the deceased is tossed overboard. With the rising costs of funerals and purchasing a gravesite, the practice of cremation and scattering ashes of the dead in the water is often chosen as a cost-effective manner of burial.