The Old Norse term for a funeral was Helför—the Helfaring, which does not merely include the rites we perform in order to send the dead on their way. It signifies the entire journey from Midgard to Hel, where they are to be judged by the Gods and Goddesses. We find a similar term in Helreið—the Helride, which is found in the story of Brynhild and her journey to the Underworld. There is a very strong co-mingling of lore and ritual when dealing with our funerary rites, and the one must never be forgotten in the light of the other.
Once a person has died there is the performance of the nábjargir, the preparation of the body. How this is done is described specifically in our lore by Hild, who tells Hodur:
"This I counsel ninth:
render the last service to
the corpses you find on the ground, whether they have died from sickness, or are drowned,
or are from weapons dead.
"Make a bath,
for those who are dead,
wash their hands and head,
comb them and wipe them dry,
before you lay them in the coffin,
and pray for their happy sleep."
Also, they must have special shoes affixed to their feet for the journey. These are called Helshoes, and our placing them onto the feet of the dead acts as a physical demonstration to the Gods that the deceased was loved and cared for and thus worthy of the lot of the blessed. It is the same concept as with sacrifice—everything is believed to have an inner-essence, so when it is offered and sent via the elements, the Gods will receive them.
Cremation is Odin's favorite form of interment, and he "established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes cast into the sea or buried in the earth. Thus, said he, everyone who comes to Valhall will come with the riches he had with him upon the pile, and he would also enjoy whatever he himself had buried in the earth" (XIX.6). "It is our belief that the higher the smoke of the pyre rises in the air, the higher he will be raised whose pile it is; and the richer he will be the more property that is consumed with him" (XXIV.10).
Even though cremation is demanded by Odinic law, it is understood that this is not always possible; so, in certain circumstances burial is allowed and many ancient graves have been found all over the Teutonic regions. The primary concern that led to the institution of cremation being commanded was a fear of the undead, which in our belief is called Draugr "The Exiled," or Haugbúar "Mound-Dwellers."
Unlike many popular understandings of these beings, the Nordic versions of the undead were not always malevolent; usually they represented the nature of the person before they died. Some were known to protect the family and estate and provide assistance wherever they could. But when a bad person had died, or when the animal elements fully exerted themselves, he or she would become a monster, striking fear in the hearts of all those living within their domain. The person was not trapped here on earth, as in the later Christianized belief, for the divine elements must always return to their source. It is simply that the lower elements of the lá (blood) and lík (body) retained some shadow of their former self and could manifest in the ways mentioned. We do not believe in such superstitions today, but it does help us to understand the evolution of some of our traditions.
"Once a person has died, their higher elements remain around the corpse for three days, and attend their own Helfaring" (XXIV.15). This allots us a specific amount of time to have the body prepared and the funeral performed. During the actual funeral rite much attention is paid to how the person lived, their accomplishments, and how they contributed to the Spiritual Collective here in Midgard while they lived. The dead are remembered, songs of mourning or funeral dirges are sung, and libations, called "grave-ales" (grafölur) are poured in respect to them. The gifts given to the pyre or the grave signify their status, their role within the family, and what part they played in the life of the Clan. We can adapt these traditions to modern times and use them in celebrating those who have moved on to the next life.
Once the Helfaring takes place, the folk enter a period of nine days where the deceased are given their memorial. More libations are poured and Minnehorns (Memory-Horns) are raised in their honor, the survivors place black tapestries on the walls, and mounds or memorial stones (runestones) are erected to recall their exploits. The reason for the nine day period is that this is the time when the dead are náir— corpses, i.e. they have not been fully reborn yet. They travel the Helways towards the Helthing in silence, accompanied by a special guide leading their way. They must traverse several obstacles that will prove whether or not they are decent or moral, such as the Helshoe tree (probably a branch of Yggdrasill) which will only allow the merciful to take from it if they are in need, or the river with iron-barbs and blades that will cut the cruel-hearted to ribbons, while the kind get to cross on wooden planks. We mourn for this time of struggle and confusion, of fear in not knowing what is taking place, and whether or not they will bear the marks of the damned.
Once the nine days are over, we celebrate their rebirth, for our love of the deceased will help the Gods to decide in their favor and give them a laudatory judgement. They receive the holy drink, called Dýrar Veigar—'Precious Liquids,' made from all three liquids of the Underworld fountains, which restores their bodies, alleviates past sorrows, and gives them a new, more powerful form. After this, they live in either Gimle, where righteous men dwell until Ragnarok, or Valhall, the hall of dead warriors, Odin's chosen elite called the Einherjar. Their fylgja, who has watched over them their entire life, usually joins them in the great hall and together they enjoy a spiritual marriage of sorts. Then the Helfaring is complete.