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OPINION: Has Sweden’s individualism made us insensitive to death?

Yes, we're all excited by the snow, but that's no excuse to go sledding at a cemetery, writes Lisa Bjurwald about a recent debate that's arisen in Sweden.

OPINION: Has Sweden's individualism made us insensitive to death?
A sign asking people not to go sledding at Skogskyrkogården. Photo: Carl-Olof Zimmerman/TT

A very Swedish debate has just taken place and is continuing to stir up emotions online, dividing our newspapers' culture and opinion sections. Families and their toboggans (or pulka in Swedish) have apparently been out in droves to slide down the hills of Stockholm's famous Skogskyrkogården cemetery, upsetting mourners and church staff.

Naturally, no one is blaming the kids – children will play anywhere, and nothing can keep a Swedish kid from taking advantage of the first sled-able snow – and if the parents were humbly apologising for their lack of judgment, this wouldn't be a story.

But it's the clueless middle-class mums and dads of Skogskyrkogården who've really set other Swedes off. One dad explains to the SVT television crew, without a hint of irony, that sleighing on graveyards isn't an issue, as long as mourners and screaming kids racing across loved ones' final resting places “respect each other”.

Pulka-gate offers an intriguing starting point to delve deeper into the Swedish character and psyche. Our individualism is, as you may guess from the quote above, at the heart of things.

If you look for Sweden on the World Values Survey map, you'll find us at the most extreme corner, the furthest away from “traditional values” and premiering “self-expression values” – a k a The Great Swedish Project of Self-Realisation – over “survival” more than any other measured country.

Apply this knowledge on mystifying Swedish phenomena, from our Covid-19 strategy to sleighing on the dead, and Sweden will start making sense.

Another key is the radical secularisation process that has taken place over the last century. With large immigration figures in recent years, the picture is more mixed than ever, but the people in charge in Swedish society are still predominantly white and rarely practising Muslims or Orthodox Christians. The church is so weak it's practically invisible, not least in the public debate.

For one, this means we've managed to almost fully erase death from our daily lives (until someone close to us passes, of course). The dwindling number who subscribe to physical newspapers may catch sight of the obituaries while looking for the movie times listings, but that's about it.

Obituaries in Swedish newspaper DN in 2020. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

On the largest opinion page in Sweden, representatives of the influential secular association Humanisterna recently argued that Sweden must sever its last remaining official ties to the church, however insignificant they may seem. Among other things, putting the church in charge of occasions such as national mourning ceremonies risks offending secular Swedes, who could find it “distasteful” or even “cruelly inconsiderate,” the writers claim.

In the land where individual choices are practically a religion, Humanisterna also lobby for the legalising of euthanasia: “Adversaries often claim that life is a gift from God and holy, but in a secular country, the personal beliefs of some can't be allowed to dictate how others should live and die.”

A fun family outing among mourners on the local cemetery is suddenly not so mystifying, right?

Before you start seeing us as cold, self-obsessed monsters, here's a mundane yet plausible explanation: it's snowing! Adults and children alike lose it completely when the first snow starts to fall. Other countries have also seen instances of people being so overexcited by the snow that they disrespect grave and memorial sites. News media across the world report incidents where German locals are sledding and skiing across graves at, horror of horrors, the memorial site of Buchenwald concentration camp.

You'd think in Sweden we'd be used to the snow, but in the mid to southern parts of the country (including Stockholm), white Christmases are increasingly a thing of the past. Something thaws in our heathen hearts as the ground is reassuringly covered with snow this year, too. But please let's remember that neither excitement over the snow nor secularism should mean disregarding other people's customs – and find another hill to slide down.

Lisa Bjurwald is a Swedish journalist and author covering current affairs, culture and politics since the mid-1990s. Her latest work BB-krisen, on the Swedish maternity care crisis, was dubbed Best reportage book of 2019 by Aftonbladet daily newspaper. She is also an external columnist for The Local – read her columns here.

Member comments

  1. And you are indeed cold and self-obsessed… maybe not monsters, but so far from what can be considered humans.

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For members


OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place.