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?”
“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.
“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.