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'Sweden and the US treat death differently'

'Sweden and the US treat death differently'

Published: 23 Nov 2012 16:56 GMT+01:00
Updated: 23 Nov 2012 16:56 GMT+01:00

After a few tough questions about life and death from her young son on All Saints' Day, US-native and parent Rebecca Ahlfeldt reflects on the differences between her homeland and Sweden when it comes to the culture of death.

This November, we had our first real experience of All Saints’ Day. Although we’ve been here for the past two Novembers, I’ve always been distracted by the holiday’s proximity to Halloween which consumes a lot of energy for our family and appears to go on for a number of days in Sweden.

But that’s changed since we now live just around the corner from Stockholm’s largest cemetery. And this year we had some extra reminders of the upcoming holiday.

The Friday before, we couldn’t help but notice a flood of people pouring through the normally quiet gates to the cemetery, loaded with candles, wreathes and plants.

And there was certainly no chance of us forgetting about the holiday on Saturday of the holiday, either: cars were lined up and down the narrow, normally empty road outside our house.

There were even two official hot dog stands parked up at the corner as well as a few unofficial young entrepreneurs selling various things out of their kitchen cupboards.

Curiosity piqued, we dodged the newly arrived car, bike and foot traffic and headed out on a walk as the sun began to go down. When we arrived at the cemetery gates, it was like we had stepped into another world.

The long stone walls dulled the noise and lights of the traffic outside, spreading a kind of calm through the air. The rain from earlier in the day had stopped, but a mist still hung in the air. In front of us, beneath the canopy of the enormous pine trees, were thousands and thousands of glowing candles everywhere we looked.

Groups of people meandered quietly through the paths alongside one another, and families stood clustered around gravestones as young kids attempted to light their votives.

We wandered down the dark, gravel paths, taking in this very personal and yet collective display of remembrance.

After observing quietly for a while, my son Eric asked: “So people are underneath all these stones?”

Hmmm…

“Well, yes,” I said, then I explained the coffin “underneath all the stones” choice versus the cremation option. This led to an unexpectedly philosophical discussion with my eight-year-old.

“Was Grandpa Norm cremated?”

My step-dad died when Eric was a baby.

“Yes.”

“Where are his ashes buried?”

This question stumped me for a minute, but I tried: “I think Grandma still has them.”

“Where does she go to remember him?”

There wasn’t a good answer to this question. Nor did I have good answers to any of his others questions about how the American side of our family remembers those who have died. This, I realized, is because we don’t really have many set traditions.

By now, the sunlight was long gone, and as we walked through the still graveyard, lit only by candlelight, I contemplated all the questions Eric had asked.

It was the first time he had ever asked questions about death that were not driven by fear. Up until this day, he had only asked about when I thought different members of the family would die, and, closely related, who would die before whom and specifically, before he did.

I had considered his worries natural, but what I hadn’t considered was that his sole focus on the fear of death is also, in part, cultural.

Countless articles have been written about Americans’ obsession with youth and our fear of death and dying. And while I’ve nodded in silent agreement as I’ve read these articles, I never really considered what an alternative would look like.

While funerals are still our cultural places to mourn a recent death, we Americans lack clear traditions for what happens in the years that follow. And in this empty space, it’s natural that fear is bred. Of course, religion can help with our understanding and acceptance of death, but the diversity of traditions it more personal than cultural.

The tone of the Skogskyrokården cemetery on All Saints’ Day was completely different. There wasn’t the sadness of immediate loss felt at a funeral, and there wasn’t emptiness or the eeriness that haunt graveyards after dark. Instead, on this cold November evening, there was a warmth, a connection to the past but also to the thousands of others who had lit their candles in remembrance.

In short, the night was beautiful, and within this space, there was room for Eric to take a more thoughtful look at death.

Is this what happens in other families on All Saints’ Day? It’s hard to tell. Sweden and the U.S. are not polar opposites, and many native-born Swedish children are fearful of death as well. But for our family, the chance to remember the dead collectively, beautifully, presented an alternative to fear.

As an expat, holidays are mingled with a twinge of longing for my native country. These are the times of the year when I most often hear other expat friends refer to their native countries as “back home.”

But our All Saints' Day walk reminded me that holidays in our new home country are also a chance to look at my own traditions from a different perspective and broaden them.

And as we move toward December, a month steeped with holidays and traditions, this is exactly the reminder I needed.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American ex-pat writer, translator and editor currently based in Stockholm.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

09:38 November 26, 2012 by bubbagump
For those who are Swedes and read this site, we in fact in the US do celebrate the remebrance of those who have departed. We call it Memorial Day (the last weekend in May. It's actually a national holiday). Originally, it was set up to honor those who have died in the course of military service and in the recent past, due to the current wars being fought by the U.S., many news sites have chosen to focus mainly on the remembrance of fallen soldiers. However, the day is not just for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country (not a political statement), but is a day set asside for the remembrance of all who have passed away. Growing up, my family always used this time to visit the local cemetary where family were buried to lay new flowers. So, no, not in November, but absolutely in the beggining of summer Americans do pay similar tribute to those who have gone before us. I do understand however that the US is quite big and can differ significantly culturaly. I'm speakng from a mostly Midwest and Southern background.
21:41 November 26, 2012 by dizzymoe33
Memorial Day in the States is for the men and women who served in the military. There is no official holiday to mourn everyone. I like the idea and the tradition of All Saints Day I think it is wonderful. I lost my mother, my Aunt and a dear friend this year and so I light a candle for all three to remember them by.
12:52 November 27, 2012 by smilingjack
so hypocritical that the USA ( biggest christian population in the world ) who carry on endlessly about the glory of their god and the light and power blah blah blah - endless rubbish but so fear death and actually being with their imaginary deity. which is all they live for. to be reunited with it.

could never understand people who spend money on a coffin for a dead person. they are dead.

then go and stare at a piece of stone where they are buried instead of looking at a picture.

reminds me of the absurdity of ancient cultures that would fill graves with objects for the afterlife and we all know how farcical that is. But doesnt stop the christians endlessly trying to shove their ridiculous beliefs down everyones throats. when will they get the message and just go away.

after the royal commission in australia into the centuries of absue perpetrated by these evil people ( the christians ) it will be the first step into finally ridding them of the last teeny bit of power they have and make them start paying tax. then good bye and good riddens.

death can then go to being what it is. death.

I will ask everyone reading what they know of their great grandparents as an indication of how much importance people really place on remembering past family members. 99% wouldnt have a clue or give a damn.
20:29 November 27, 2012 by Valdemaratterdag
@smilingjack,

All very well said. I have made a copy of your post for future reference. Thank you!

Regarding your last paragraph, I'm reminded of how patriarchal our family is, and possibly most other families. I know my grandfather's middle name, but not my grandmother. I know my great-grandfather's first name, but not my great-grandmother. On my mother's side, I know my grandfather and grandmother's first name, but not any of my great-grandparents.
09:16 November 28, 2012 by skogsbo
totally agree jack, it just so false. So many people would go to graves and put flowers on etc. but they probably couldn't tell you what that person favourite food was etc.

Look at the crazy mourning over Diana, anybody else who shagged around whilst married would be labelled for live etc.

Death is, death, as you say. But people try to make so much more of it. Better to appreciate those around you NOW, than concern yourself with excessive mourning, it's too late, you should have said more, or done more with them when they were alive. Move on and when you know draw your last breath, at least you'll feel content that you were nice to folk who deserved it.
22:23 November 28, 2012 by castor-Beaver
It is not only Sweden that treats death and the deceased they way Rebecca describes it. Other European countries do as well, whether they be Germany, France, Italy or Spain.

What I found interesting were the questions her young son asked and how she handled them. In all cases, once in a country other than one's original one, one has to adapt and respect the way people lead their lives.

I have lived in the Czech Republic, France, the USA and now Canada and I can testify that life is a constant set of adjustments. Passing judgment on a host country's customs, is, I find, being rather narrow minded. I may also alienate your hosts.
06:26 November 29, 2012 by mkvgtired
@smilingjack,

I am not sure most people in the US are as radical as you say. It seems everything on this site has to descend into an anti-US rant. It sounds akin to Sweden preaching tolerance and acceptance and then electing officials that spit on brown people and go on racist rants in town squares. There are a lot of educated minorities from Europe in the Great Satan because it seems European "ideals" dont always translate into actual practice.

I'm not religious, but I dont see the US trying to shove religion down anyone's throat. I think you are bending reality to fit your preconceived notions.
10:39 November 29, 2012 by Shibumi
Well written piece Rebecca.
21:55 November 29, 2012 by Mark S.
"Where does she go to remember him?"

There IS a good answer to that: She doesn't need to go somewhere to remember him. She can remember him anywhere. She can remember him any time.

My grandmother is buried in a cemetery that is more than 4 hours travel from my home. I remember her just as well as if she were here.

When you say Americans don't have many set traditions, that just means that we aren't as homogenous as some other nationalities. A lot of us choose our own way. A lot of us have multiple traditions to pick from, and we choose only the parts that appeal to us. Some people think of us as "not having culture", but a better description is we each choose our own.
22:19 November 30, 2012 by theobserver
Sweden is the only country were funeral offices advertise their products (coffins) and decorate their windows accordingly. It seems that Swedes are looking forward to die. This way they won't have to speak to anyone ever (a practice which they find annoying).
11:54 December 1, 2012 by Joakim Muth
@theobserver

"This way they won't have to speak to anyone ever (a practice which they find annoying)."

And you just proved WHY they find it annoying
19:55 December 4, 2012 by zeulf
@ smilingjack Please pop back from Hyperspace and relax, Have some Dark Chocolate. while I do not Live in the Bible belt of the US . nor the Snaps belt of Europe. there are Believers everywhere, some of whom attempt to teach us the "right" way to believe. Belief is a personal thing, depending on how You are raised. Death is a pretty personal occurance too. Expensive Coffins ar'nt for me but these ancient customs do express one thing clearly. LOVE

Taking care of our dead, showing how precious they still are to us, does not help them but US. I've stared at a Stone. wondered who my grandfather was

( gone before I was born) , wished I had driven the 5 hours to visit my grandma much more often . and wished for an afterlife that i do'nt believe in , just to see her again.

Steve Jobs said it pretty well " Death is a good motivator" so enjoy yourselves this JUl AND TRY TO BE NICE TO SOMEONE YOU NEVER MET BEFORE
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