When it comes to births and marriages, Swedes’ tastes run fairly traditional with photographs accompanying the announcements in the newspaper.
But for a death, families can choose from a bevy of small symbols to place at the top of the notice box.
The practice is believed to be unique in the world, giving a sometimes cartoon feel to the sombre subject at hand.
“About 10 years ago it really started to pick up. Before there were mostly crosses but the newspapers started to accept more and more symbols and they expanded very quickly,” explains Christer Larsson, in charge of family notices in Sweden’s largest daily Dagens Nyheter.
He pulls out a booklet showing a selection of drawings and symbols suggested by funeral homes, categorized by religion, animals (pets are as popular in death as in life), flowers and plants, sports team logos, and miscellaneous, including a lute, candle, grand piano, treble clef, saxophone, heart or teddy bear.
“In general the symbols are usually related to the work of the deceased or their hobbies. For instance a wrench means the person was probably a handyman,” he says.
A recent notice announcing the death of “our beloved” Gerd Ljungbom, who passed away at the age of 76, is accompanied by a racing bicycle. Åke Ericsson, who died 88 years young, must have loved chess since his announcement features a chess king, while Göran Wirström likely drove a heavy truck.
The widower of Maj-Britt Loddby chose a silhouette of a dapper couple waltzing. Underneath are a few lines, as is typical: “To my beloved wife, my life companion. A candle has been blown out and the glow has faded.”
Joy Nystrom, 85, tells AFP that when her husband died last year she chose “a small sweet flower, a bluebell, because he loved them. I talked about it with our children and we chose it together. I thought first about a boat with a fisherman in it because he loved the sea.”
“As for me, I would like a notice with nothing. It’s clean and nice,” she said. Her 80-year-old sister Mona meanwhile wants a drawing of three seagulls.
“But not tomorrow,” she adds hastily with a smile.
“Most of the time it is the family who chooses but sometimes the deceased has left instructions for his death announcement,” says Bo Forslund, a spokesman at Fonus, one of Sweden’s biggest funeral homes.
“I think it is rather unique to Sweden but I don’t know why,” he added.
In neighbouring Finland drawings are occasionally used but not nearly as frequently or as varied as in Sweden.
It was Ulla Nerman, the widow of a Swedish writer, who pioneered the practice 30 years ago, according to Christian Richette of Stockholm’s cultural history museum Nordiska Museet, because she refused to have a cross atop her husband’s death announcement.
“She wanted a little flower. At first the newspaper resisted but in the end it agreed,” Richette says.
The announcement was published on December 31, 1977 in Dagens Nyheter.
“It’s primarily an urban phenomenon, in rural regions people are still more traditional with crosses,” Richette says, noting that many of the symbols chosen nowadays still have a religious connotation.
Simon Hansen Elvestad of Norway is also at a loss to explain why Swedes have opted for the eye-opening trend.
His company Adstate has developed software that produces and distributes death notices, handling 30,000 announcements in Sweden and 15,000 in Norway — where the death notices remain sober with a cross.
But he offers a possible explanation.
“In Sweden newspapers editors have agreed to let the funeral homes work with them for the death notices and they have adapted to the wishes of the families,” he says.
A small death notice in Dagens Nyheter costs 34 kronor ($5) per column. On Sundays, it costs an extra krona. A family can also opt to design their own symbol, but at an extra cost of 250 kronor.
The newspaper has rules to follow so that the death pages maintain a certain dignity, says Christer Larsson.
“We don’t accept a cigarette, but we can accept a pipe. We can’t accept a beer glass but a wine glass is fine,” he says, noting that death ads must be black-and-white because they’re more tasteful.
Families’ own drawings are rarely refused.
“Once,” he recalls, “someone sent us a picture of a guy barbecuing and he was not wearing a shirt and barbecuing a hamburger. We couldn’t accept that. It would have been shocking.”
AFP’s Francis Kohn