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Cultural spotlight: Swedish death traditions

From death cleaning to funeral sweets: the Swedish death traditions we’d gladly adopt.

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Kate Nolan-Burgess

March 24, 2021

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Welcome to Sweden: the land of meatballs, forests and ABBA. Our friends in the frozen Nordic lands are known for many different traditions, and the way they handle their dead and funerals is unique. We took a peek at 4 ways the Swedes do death.

Death cleaning

Not the kind when you’ve scrubbed yourself literally to death, but the kind when you get everything in order before you die. Known as döstädning, death cleaning is a style of decluttering you do when you think your time on the planet might be coming to a close. The author of The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaninga popular book on the topic, says it doesn’t have to happen all in one go. Luckily for us, as the place is a right tip.

Instead, author Margaretta Magnusson suggests that people start tidying up around the place a bit as soon as they start thinking about their own mortality. She says: “Don’t collect things you don’t want. One day when you’re not around anymore, your family would have to take care of all that stuff, and I don’t think that’s fair.” Wise words indeed.

Swedish death sweets

During the 19th century, when in the UK we were busy wearing mourning jewellery and burying our dead with bells, in Sweden, things were a little sweeter. Hard sugar candies in frilly black paper became popular as a funeral favour. 

The fringes on the wrapper were significant though: long and thin fringes indicated the death of an older person, and shorter wider fringes were for children or young people.

The candies fell out of fashion due to sugar rationing in WWII, but some surviving Swedish death sweets have decorative wrappers and even poems printed on them.

Are Swedes to busy for funerals?

There’s a debate surrounding the length of time between death and funerals in Sweden. These days, people have up to 1 month to bury their dead, but the laws used to allow much more time between death and the ground. Historically, people could take up to 2 months to bury or cremate their loved ones after they’d died.

Some people argue that Swedes take so long to hold funerals because they are notoriously busy and practical people. Others think that taking your time to bury your loved ones gives you more time with them and longer to mourn. Either way, they typically take longer to say goodbye than most other countries and cultures.

Bury me, but ditch the funeral

Swedes are becoming known for burials without ceremonies at all. Heralded as the funerals of the future, many bodies are taken straight from the hospital to the crematorium and then scattered somewhere – no faff. 

Known as direct cremations, in 2019 they accounted for almost 8% of cremations. If someone had a bad relationship with their family in life, or there was debate over the most appropriate burial, then this style of cremation tends to be popular. At least it saves money on flowers?

What do you want to happen when you die?

Hopefully the ever-practical Swedish practices have given you some inspiration. Whether you want a flat-pack coffin or some dead good candies, why not make your wishes clear now?

MAKE A DEATHWISH