Memories of N.D. Viking sent to Valhalla

Stephen Rendahl’s family honors his memory by building and burning a ship just for him

Photo: Laurel Englemann The ship burned well but never sank, making it easy to dispose of what remained in an environmentally sensitive manner.

Photo: Laurel Englemann
The ship burned well but never sank, making it easy to dispose of what remained in an environmentally sensitive manner.

Laurel Englemann
Shoreview, Minn.

Why would people agree to build a Viking ship, or design and make a dragon head and tail, or sew a striped sail when they know that the intention is to set it all on fire? Besides being kind-hearted friends, the idea captured the imaginations of those involved in this project enough to become enthusiastic participants.

The family of Stephen Rendahl wanted to remember him one year after his unexpected death. He was a proud descendant of four grandparents who emigrated from Norway to North Dakota, and he lived on the farmstead of one of the grandmothers. He taught at the American College of Norway in Moss, Norway, six different times and enjoyed visiting the home places of all four grandparents and other sites in Norway. He often referred to Norway as “The Holy Land.” He was a professor in the Communications Department at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

The idea surfaced to send memories of him to Valhalla in a ceremonial Viking ship funeral pyre. I approached Ken Grosch to see if he had suggestions on how to do this, because I knew he was a woodworker and had a connection to Norway through his wife and daughter. He used his designing, engineering, and woodworking skills to build the four-foot model ship, plus he checked the sea-worthiness and flammability of the materials used in making the vessel. Dick Sherva was interested in the project, so he used his skills to design, cut, and artfully make a dragon head and tail to be attached to the ship. Mary Claseman was consulted about sewing red and white fabric into a striped sail and she used her seamstress skills to complete that part of the project. So the idea became a reality three months after it first appeared with the help of these creative, talented friends.

Photo: Laurel Englemann Kids decorated small paper plates to use as shields on the ship.

Photo: Laurel Englemann
Kids decorated small paper plates to use as shields on the ship.

The family collected small things that reflected Stephen’s interests, which included family, travel, music, art, farming, teaching, horses, fishing, North Dakota, and Norway.

Ken did tests and found that a safe flammable starter would be strips of fabric soaked in diesel fuel, plus some small ropes built into the ship that could be painted with diesel.

On the selected day, the grandchildren, Haley and Anthony, and their friends decorated small paper plates and attached them to the ship as shields. Private notes were written and sealed.

At the appointed time, the family gathered around a table by the lake. They had a toast using Stephen’s favorite tequila, heard his wife, Robbin, explain all that was included in the memorabilia, listened to the reading of three Viking funeral prayers, and then prepared the ship.

Photo: Laurel Englemann The Viking ship was filled with mementos of Stephen and notes written by his loved ones.

Photo: Laurel Englemann
The Viking ship was filled with mementos of Stephen and notes written by his loved ones.

Diesel was painted on the bottom of the ship, and several strips of cloth from favorite t-shirts were soaked in diesel. A small amount was poured on some of his ashes and the memorabilia that was loosely placed in the ship along with notes and some bark chips. At the last minute, a small amount of a lamp oil was poured over the whole thing to speed ignition. Stephen’s daughter, Brenda, then carried the prepared ship out into the lake and lit it with a match. The family and a few friends watched with fascination as it continued to burn for almost half an hour.

It was beautiful, meaningful, and yes, even fun to honor him in this way. The ship never did sink and a fishing line attached to a wire threaded through a pipe on the bottom guided the burned-out ship back to shore without any disturbance to or pollution of the lake. It all ended with the feeling of a suitable, honorable memorial to a proud Norwegian American.

How to make the Viking ship
The goal of making the ship in this way was to build a simple, low cost, Viking-looking ship that would burn effectively. Directions by Ken Grosch.

Parts list:
1 8’ 2×4 (for the bow and stern)
1 4’ 1×10 (for the ship bottom)
2 8”x48”x¼” Luan plywood strips (for the ship sides)
1 27” ½” dowel (mast)
2 16” ½” dowels (for cross arms)
1 3”x3”x¾” block (to make a base for the mast)
2 8” 1×6 (for a dragon head and tail)
Fabric for the sail
10 4” paper discs from card stock or paper plate bottoms for shields (optional)
1 ¾”x30” steel pipe (for a keel and to assist the ship sinking after burning) (optional)
clips for attaching pipe
outdoor adhesive
fasteners
varnish

First, cut the sides to shape. Then groove the bottom board to provide more surface area for burning and give the appearance of planks. The bow and stern are each formed with 4 one-foot sections of 2×4 cut to the curve of the ship, glued together and tapered to allow the sides to make good contact.

Cut the bottom board to shape using the sides and ends to determine the curve. Attach the bow and stern to the base with screws. Attach the sides with adhesive and fasteners. Mount the mast with a block in the center of the ship. Cut and shape a dragon head and tail and attach those.

Finally, varnish everything to protect it from the water.

More details are available from kengrosch@yahoo.com.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 12, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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