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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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‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.