Swedes' long journey to their final resting place

 22 May 2016 - 12:53

Swedes' long journey to their final resting place
File photo of churchyard visitors at the grave of Swedish actress Greta Garbo in Stockholm, on September 25, 1999. 
AFP / SCANPIX SWEDEN / JAN COLLSIOO 

 

Stockholm: "You don't leave a chicken in the fridge for several weeks, yet that's exactly what we do with our dead, it's terrible!"

Lotte Moller, a culture critic and author who wrote a book about Swedish funerals, gets charged up every time she thinks about the fact that Swedes take almost a month to lay their dearly departed to rest.

Despite authorities' efforts to get Swedes to say their final farewells faster, the dead continue to linger in the morgue.

Recent statistics published by the Swedish Association of Funeral Directors show that Swedes wait 20 days on average before burying their dead, which the association claims is a world record.

However Muslims and Jews in Sweden are by custom required to hold burials within one to five days.

For Swedes, once the body "is taken care of, the deceased is no longer the family's problem. He or she doesn't matter anymore," says Moller.

Agnes Hansson, a 21-year-old student, lost her father Ake suddenly on February 8 in the Swedish town of Harnosand, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of Stockholm where she studies. The funeral was held on March 4, 24 days after his death.

"It was too soon. I had a ton of things to do and I wasn't able to take part in the preparations. Others didn't have time to get time off work or find someone to watch their children," she tells AFP.

"Think of the time it takes to prepare a christening or a wedding, between sending out the invitations and organising the ceremony itself," she says.

File photo of Woodland Cemetery on All Saints Day in Stockholm, Sweden. 
AFP / JONATHAN NACKSTRAND

Swedish pragmatism 

Sweden is one of the most secular countries in the world, where only eight percent of people profess to attend church regularly.

Compared to the elaborate and grandiose Roman Catholic Church, Sweden's Protestant Lutheran Church professes rigour and austerity.

Experts note the Swedes' delay in burying their dead is not, as one might think, about trying to prolong the loved ones' time on Earth.

No, Swedes are just... practical. Think of death like an Ikea flatpack do-it-yourself piece of furniture: Swedes are known for their "lack of sentimentality and imagination, and their strong pragmatism," says Moller.

The trend of funeral delays dates back to the 1970s, when Sweden was opening up to the outside world. The deadline to bury one's dead then was two months.

"Swedes who had moved abroad and the pioneers of mass tourism had to be given time to make it back to the country" after the death of a loved one, explains Swedish Lutheran Church historian Anders Jarlet.

Now, "we prioritise other things, like a holiday or an important work engagement, and the funeral of your old mother can wait a bit," laments Eva Brunne, the bishop of Stockholm.

Too busy to bury

The head of the Swedish Association of Funeral Directors, Ulf Lerneus, agrees. 

"People focus on their nuclear family and their kids' activities and their schedules are full. And they don't put everything on hold to organise a funeral," he adds.

Ake Daun, a professor emeritus of ethnology at Stockholm University, is however less critical and suggests the time lapse should be attributed to a different aspect of Swedish pragmatism.

"Normally, death comes at a moment that is unpredictable. In Sweden we think you should hold off on the ceremony as long as possible to make sure that all the family and friends who want to make it can attend," he said.

Jarlet also suggests the reason could originate from the harsh winter climate. In the 19th century, when someone died in winter and the ground was frozen solid, coffins were buried in a communal pit before being placed in their final resting spot in summer once the soil thawed.

But Moller dismisses that as the explanation for today's funeral delays.

"In Norway they have the same winters as we do and yet they hold their funerals more quickly."

By law, Norwegians have 10 working days after a death to bury their dead, while Danes have eight days.

Whatever the reason, Jarlet finds the delay disturbing. 

"Taking care of our dead, that's one of the things that separates us from other animal species," he says.

For both Jarlet and Lerneus, the delay is also a reflection of an increasingly individualist society, in which elderly parents are shipped off to nursing homes and where, in the eyes of their children, they're already dead.

AFP