‘Sweden and the US treat death differently’

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.

'Sweden and the US treat death differently'

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.

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Why I chose to say goodbye to Sweden

In her last column for The Local, US-native Rebecca Ahlfeldt explains why she is saying goodbye to Sweden for San Francisco, and how having a bi-cultural family influenced The Decision.

Why I chose to say goodbye to Sweden

The movers came today. Again.

Looking on the bright side, we still haven’t unpacked all our boxes from our move last October, which means fewer boxes to worry about. Of course, if we went without the contents of these boxes for the last eight months, there’s a good chance we don’t really need them. My inner minimalist wants to just get rid of all this stuff we’ve been lugging around, and yet my inner sentimentalist, so conscious of living an ocean away from my birth country, wants to hold on to it all.

So we have a large heap of boxes. I’ve been advised that if I can’t remember what’s in them, I should just give them away, unopened. I’m tempted, but I peeked in the first box anyway: My deceased mother-in-law’s hand-embroidered linens which we do, in fact, use (when they’re in sight). Enough of that idea.

Instead, I sat down on my staircase and contemplated how I got here, so far from home, in the middle of yet another move. That’s right — I fell in love. And I am still very much in love. But marrying and having a family with someone from another country is much more complex than I ever imagined. I failed to really grasp one the most obvious facts inherent in this kind of relationship: Marrying someone from another country means that one of us will always be living in a “foreign” country. At 26, that idea sounded more fun than anything else, but now, a little farther down the road, with kids and aging parents, things are a little more complicated.

We all have our alternate lives, our roads not taken. What if I had married my college boyfriend and stayed in Nebraska? What if I had followed my dreams and pursued a career as a rock star/actor/professional wrestler instead of wasting the last few years as a campground manager/corporate middle manager/7-11 cashier?

But as a bi-cultural family, our particular road not taken still exists — in fact, we can visit it: what if we lived (in our case) back in the US? And unlike the college boyfriend, our alternate life is still waiting for us, even calling us: “Try it, just for a little while. Your life might be better here.”

After our unexpected move last fall, my husband and I have spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating our future. The new rental we found would hold us over for a while, but it was time to make The Decision: Do we buy a house in Sweden and plant ourselves here for the foreseeable future? Do we move back to the US and do the same? Or was there some sort of middle road that didn’t require independent wealth and wouldn’t traumatize our kids forever?

We made the chart, with pro-Stockholm on one side and pro-San Francisco on the other. We put down everything we could think of: schools, walkability, diversity, acceptance of difference, friendships, future work possibilities, relationships with relatives, climate and many other factors, large and small. But when we finally finished the list, there was no clear winner. If anything, the chart showed that, after experiencing both countries, our decision had become more complicated. We now knew we could be happy in both places for very different reasons.

When we moved here over three years ago, I assumed that the answer to the puzzle of our family’s future would become clear to us. The chart would show us an obvious answer. All lingering what ifs would be resolved. We would then make The Decision and then live happily ever after. Of course, real life doesn’t work this way. Even after we had come to an answer, new information kept cropping up, clouding our resolve.

We finally came to our own Existential conclusion, though admittedly a little more mundane than Sartre’s version: In the end, whether we choose San Francisco or Stockholm matters less than the fact that we’re (finally) making The Decision.

So we just did it. We made a choice. We are saying goodbye to our alternate life forever.

But that’s not the hardest part. Most painful is the knowledge that, in choosing San Francisco, we will cut ourselves off from the close and deeply rewarding relationships we have formed here. I will always feel the ache of missing my Stockholm friends in the same way I still feel the absence of the people I left behind in San Francisco, New York and Michigan so long ago.

This was all part of the package when my husband and I got married; it’s a piece of every bi-cultural family we know. At a cocktail party we attended a few weeks ago, every couple there had their own version of this same story. And even the “lifers”, as one woman called herself, still felt the pull of their family and friends in their country of birth long after The Decision.

The pulls of both countries will always be there. It’s time for our family to make peace with this knowledge, put one foot in front of the other and take the next step forward.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American expat writer, translator, and editor who is now saying goodbye to Stockholm after three years. Follow Rebecca on Twitter here