In our modern warrior culture many liken our military and law enforcement members bravery and tenacity to that of the ancient Vikings and their ilk. Vikings were not representative of the entirety of Norse history or culture yet this fact does not stop the continued romanticizing of their profession. Reality informs us that Vikings performed raids as a means of supporting an expanding society and a way of gaining honor among their kinsfolk. Like or hate their mission woe be it to the farmer who lost everything to a Viking seeking loot.
We see Vikings as being part of one of the roughest, toughest warrior cultures of them all. They are thought of as the greatest seafarers, the most bearish of men, the wildest and most violent of any warriorkind; in fact we imagine them to be as we want to them to be and not as something less than. By reading history there is much to admire about them despite their faults.
All cultures need heroes and archetypes upon which all of the highest qualities of a warrior is modeled. Man needs inspiration to excel in his professional or personal pursuits. The best of their patterns should be imitated such as a warrior’s sense of adventure, self-control, planning, cunning and sacrificial nature for their brethren. Admirers seeking to emulate warriors use aspects of their best qualities as directional arrows in battle. What Would a Viking Do? (WWVD) Warriors value aspects of man where he pushes certain human capabilities to their limits. We want to be like them.
Our military’s Marine Raiders keep a low profile but they can count themselves among the strongest around because of their mental and physical prowess. The Marine Raiders, are a component of the United States Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command. Yet we should not stop there and deny the entry of others into the warrior fraternity. Any warrior worth his or her salt should be added to the rosters of the brave and just. Soldiers, sailors, Marines, law enforcement members and others have their place among this class of men.
Reading history books lets us learn of many ancient famous Viking battles. Norse mythology tells us of the Valkyrie carrying fallen Norse men from the battlefield.
Where do dead men go?
In Scandinavian stories the dead go to various places such as Fólkvangr, Hel, Helgafjell, and Valhalla. The most familiar name to most of us, made ever more popular by the recent Thor movie, was a place in the afterlife called Valhalla.
Valhalla was thought of as an expansive hall filled with the bravest of warriors and ruled by the mighty god Odin. Odin held dominion over this majestic place set in Asgard. Its high ceilings, enormous pillars of stone and wood encircled brave warriors who reveled beneath a ceiling thatched with golden shields. Wounds were healed and the mead never ran out.
With the ancient Spartans we are not overly familiar with their funeral rites nor their afterlife. These laconic warriors had no written history. It was men such as Herodotus or Plutarch that preserved knowledge of their past. The historian Plutarch (c. 46-120) tells us that these militaristic Spartans buried their citizens in their cities and in among where the living dwelled.
In his book The Epigraphy of Death: Studies in the History and Society of Greece and Rome the writer G.J. Oliver tells us that, “Spartan burial customs denied the erection of private grave memorials to all men except those who had died in war and those women who had perished in childbirth”.
In the book Property and Wealth in Classical Sparta by Stephen Hodkinson we are told that near the Aegean and eastern mainland of Greece that funeral rites were fuller and more evidenced, however in the regions of Sparta there were no marked funerary monuments with inscribed epitaphs. Decorated amphoras were perhaps an egalitarian touch and not suitable for the draconian temperament of Spartan men.
Some times markers were used to mark Spartan graves and some bodies were brought back to Sparta but in most cases no headstone let passersby know who they were or where they lie.
The Spartans wrapped their dead in a red robe covered in olive leaves and performed intramural burials instead of laying their warriors outside the city boundaries. More often these warriors were buried upon the battlefields where they fell because it was impractical to transport so many back to their city states.
The Spartans were to have no memorials yet consider this profound fact: At the place where Leonidas made his doomed stand against the Persians at Thermopylae (480 BC) the Spartans erected a monument.
Go tell the Spartans, passerby,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
This memorial no doubt has inspired many a man or boy. We still make movies and write books about them, right? Stories about bravery should never stop being told.
The ancient Spartans believed in religion and the gods like the majority of the ancient Greek states. Know this, in ancient Greece the, “continued existence of the dead depended on their constant remembrance by the living. By the time of Plato, however (4th century BCE) the after-life had changed in character so that souls were better rewarded for their pains once they had left the earth; but only in so much as the living kept their memory alive.”
Memory makes us. Past events bring with them learned meanings and meaning brings with it a means of communication even if we cannot outwardly express what we think or feel easily. Memory, whether good or badly recollected, is a preservation of something or someone in its original state. If we can remember rightly we can then illuminate the story of our past to others and what we accomplished. It is up to us to tell our stories. Thank God for technology and social media for giving us the ability to share stories many of which might never have been told.
According to Homer, Elysium or the Elysian Fields, is a conception of the afterlife. If you enjoy viewing war movies then you will surely enjoy the Ridley Scott directed movie Gladiator featuring the always interesting actor Russell Crowe. Before the Roman legions battle the filthy and fierce Germanic barbarians Crowe, playing the Roman General Maximus, gives his men a spell-binding speech about bravery and Elysium. Elysium is a place for the righteous and the heroic where they will remain after death, to live a blessed and happy life. Elysium was also called Elysium Plain and was a land of perfect happiness at the end of the Earth. It rested on the banks of the Oceanus. There is a beautiful shot at the end of the movie Gladiator where our hero meets his family among golden fields of wheat. Maximus soul finds a final resting place alongside the souls of heroes and virtuous men.
Whether you believe in the afterlife or not is only known intimately by you. Death is inevitable. We cannot deny this. One day each of us will face the loss of a close-friend or family member and one day we will die. Many who served in the military or in the police ranks and experienced combat and also losing a man often feel survivor’s guilt.
Whatever your belief know this one day we will be confronted by a wide range of emotions such as feeling helpless, lost, sad or anxious. There is no post-war/ stress training for those who have been ‘there.’ You may have recurring dreams or nightmares about certain incidents. You may remember your friends in the oddest of ways. Some sociologists believe man constructed concepts of the afterlife as a means of coping with death. They conjecture that maintaining emotional ties with the deceased via rituals assists one in coping with loss.
There is a place here too for the atheist. What did ancient non-believers believe? Perhaps they had an intuition about the laws of conservation whereby no energy can be created or destroyed. A fallen comrades energy exists and will always exist in this universe and the multiverse. How comforting to know the stars are their destination. Memory let’s us recollect the idea of who they were and they will exist even after we’re gone and so will we. Can there be found some parallel with the text of service in the English Burial Service of ashes to ashes:
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
I am not here to proselytize for or against one faith for another. I merely want the reader to find some common bond in humanity, for a moment, during a Sunday morning reading of this article. We haven’t even scratched the surface on ancient and modern rituals and beliefs.
After working with terminal cancer patients the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced in 1969 what became known as the “five stages of grief,” which represent feelings. You may be familiar with these concepts.
- Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
- Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
- Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
- Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
- Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what has happened.”
There is no structure or timetable for the grieving process. When a friend died it took me a year to recognize that I was sad and missed him. Grief is a journey. Daily life may feel like a chore because despair or some other uncomfortable form of feelings sets in. Some of the broken-hearted withdraw socially, while others reach out for support from friends and loved ones.
“Death, dying, severe injury and any kind of proximity to death is an odd and severely profound thing. If we can survive its presence, to allow even the smallest amount of humanity to work in us, I believe it can transform us for the better. We go on to become productive citizens rather than the angry stereotypes depicted in Hollywood movies. I believe that families, whom give up their sons and daughters to serve our nation, and warriors who fight for our great nation know this feeling of humanity better than anyone. (of course some act inhumanely) Just ask some of the families of police officers and warfighters the pain they must feel. But in that pain there can be a transcendence into a life others cannot comprehend.”
There is a great intertwining between the living and the dead and this chord is never severed although it may painfully feel that way after experiencing loss.
Venerating the dead is related to beliefs that the dead have a continued existence. You may not believe in an afterlife but this does not mean you do not feel pain and do not miss a fallen warrior. Honoring the dead by celebrating their life is a way of coping.
Your warrior may have been a fire-fighter, a Marine, a police officer or someone who lived a life of sacrifice in order to better this world.
There are ways to stay connected to the dead. My mentor Jay requested that he be buried in a tuxedo and purple bow tie. The funeral director propped his coffin up at the wake in order that it appear that Jay was standing by and observing the party in his honor. He wore black Wayfarer glasses over his eyes. Attendees recounted poignant stories about him. Who could have known he touched so many lives?
I did not attend. I heard these stories afterwards and know now that I was intentionally avoiding his absence by not attending. Little did I know that it would have given me closure earlier.
Some of the things you can do to stay connected with the dead and to help you get through the grieving process is to:
- Carry something special that reminds you of your loved one. Beads, bracelets or a necklace are things that you can take out and hold when you feel the need to recollect their relationship with you.
- Memorabilia in the form of a scrapbook filled with photographs or simply a collection of letters that you can re-read at your leisure are useful too.
- Creating a work of art in your loved one’s memory is truly powerful. Whether or not you paint a canvas or visit a gallery dedicated to the fallen is a good way of healing and staying connected to their loss.
- Developing a memorial ritual for your loved one on special days or whenever you wish is a good way to feel their loss and presence. Drinking from a favorite mug, or holding a toast with your brothers is a special occasion to recall stories.
- Lighting a candle at certain times of the month is helpful in paying respects.
- Making a donation to a charity that your loved one supported or to a cause that is worthy are good ways to heal and honor. The Gallant Few, the Raider Project, and keep in mind there are many police foundations. Do your research in order to avoid the scams.
- Planting a tree or flowers in your loved one’s memory is a great way to honor your friend or family member.
- Spending time listening to your loved one’s favorite music is a good way to stay connected.
- Visiting your loved one’s burial site.
- Watching his or her favorite movie.
Studies show that people who hold a bleak view of the afterlife may experience anger, depression, and other intrusive thoughts compared to those with a positive outlook on someone’s passing. I hope you enjoyed reading this article. There are many informative sources out there with some highly qualified counselors for helping you with the grieving process. Good luck.
“Where do good men go when they die? They go to some far away shore, to some distant, gray land that we don’t know. To God they go. To some strange lodge on a hill, with shining lights, and an open door to sit with other men around a banquet hall we all suppose.
Arms go around them, and welcome our heroes in, and laughter flows. The dead leave us with our sorrows, and they continue on to another life unencumbered by their pain. The crippled can walk, the legless can run, and those with a broken heart can feel love again.
Our pain is our own, our sorrow is our own…we are alone. We cannot describe to others the way we feel. There is no definable hurting to share, no hint of what aches the heart, or anything that we can relate to others on exactly what it is we feel. These moments, when they come, dig into us and we feel a savage loneliness. Any subtle thrill we have for living is burdened by the presence of death.
But life is not over. If we can get out of our heavy funk, if we navigate outside these roads of war within our own heart, we will grow. Long after the sad, blue odor of pain is gone, the scent changes to the sweet smell of hopefulness. How do we get out of this? By focusing on our friends who are alive in the here and now. By remembering what our dead lovers, friends and family meant to us. By carrying on in old traditions we used to have with them. By celebrating with others some of the silly, inane crap they used to do, by sharing with others how freaking hilarious or brave they were. Remembering the good times brings back good feelings. I’m no expert on healing. This is my own opinion.”~Michael Kurcina