Journeys of life and death
Life is often described as a journey. Death also. We often we speak of travelling to the hereafter, going to meet one's maker, gathering to one's fathers or crossing the Stygian ferry.
There are many symbols of journeys connected with death. In many Christian churches in northern Europe, you will find ships models that symbolize travelling over the sea of life towards the haven of heaven. Thomas Kingo describes this journey in a psalm from the 16th century:
Let the church-ship receive
Ten thousand blows on its side
Even then will Jesus know
Where it will reach its haven.
Ships were important elements in Christianity already from around the year 200 - when Clemens of Alexandria suggested "Let the dove or the fish, the anchor or the ship itself that is driven forth by the wind become our symbol".
Muslims believe that after the resurrection, humanity must cross the bridge Al Sirat, which is on the road to heaven. The bridge is thinner than a human hair and sharper than a sword. Those who have lived a good life cross the bridge with ease, led by the Prophet Mohammed. Those who have evil within them lose their balance and fall in the depths to hell.
Many Hindus believe that the soul of a person leaves this life and is reincarnated in much the same way that passengers can leave one ship in order to board another. Ships are merely a means of travel, just as our bodies are. But, according to Hindu stories, these travels can be arduous. The human soul can receive assistance along the way - for example, by holy cows in order to symbolically cross Vaitarani Nadi - the river of death.
Buddhists also believe that the human soul has a period of wandering before it is re-incarnated on earth. Through prayer and offerings, the living can contribute to hinder that the soul loses its way during its journey.
Vikings often lay their dead in ships in order to secure a safe passage for them into the next world. Some ships were burnt. Others - like the Oseberg and Gokstad ships - were buried in their entirety. Ibn Faldun, a travelling Arab merchant, described Viking rituals this way during a journey in the year 922:
For the poor among them, they make a small ship, lay him down in it, and burn it. But on the occasion of the death of a wealthy man, the collect his entire fortune and divide it in three equal parts. One third goes to his family, another third is used for making funeral clothing. The last third is used for brewing beer, which they drink the day his servant girl kills herself, and is burnt together with her master.