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DEATH AND BURIAL CUSTOMS IN FINLAND

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[            Death and Burial Customs in Finland

It was customary for someone to keep watch beside a dying person. When death came, the eyes and mouth were closed. Traditionally coins were placed on the eyelids. If his mouth remained open, a cloth was tied around his head, or a hymnal was placed under his chin. In Swedish-speaking parishes, it was the practice to ring the church bells when a person died.

After death the body was washed and certain magic precautions were taken by members of the household. During the Reformation the body was fully dressed and this custom continued to the mid 19th century. Since then bodies have been wrapped in a white smock in the western parts of the country, which was also the custom during the Middle Ages. After the body was dressed it was put on a death board and carried to an outbuilding to await burial.

The coffin was made at home or by a carpenter. Ready-made coffins were not common until this century. The coffin usually was unpainted, or black. Children’s coffins could be white or pale blue. In the 19th century it was a tradition to put some personal belongings in the coffin, such as a comb, soap, handkerchief, pipe, toys, tools, food or money.

The funeral usually was held on the 3rd day after death and a wake was held during the nights. Wakes were banned under the Ecclesiastic Law of 1686, and later were restricted to the final night. The family invited relatives, neighbors and farm tenants to the funeral. Guests usually brought food and were served a meal on the morning of the funeral. In the western provinces the funeral house was decorated with fir tree branches placed by the gate or door, or else juniper branches were spread over the floor. In Ostrobothnia a fir tree bower was built in the yard in the summer.

Before the coffin was carried out of the house, a hymn was sung. Each line was first sung by the pastor, and then it was repeated by the mourners. The coffins of young people were carried by young men, and old men carried the coffins of old people. The coffin was carried out with the body feet first. Magic precautions were taken while the body was carried out: an axe or nail was driven into the spot where the coffin stood; ashes and salt were cast after the coffin.

The coffin cart was driven by a black horse bearing a white or black and white cover tied to the collar bow. In Karelia little bells were used in the funeral procession. The closest relatives and funeral singers walked behind the coffin. Until the 1920s it was customary to sing hymns on the way to the cemetery. As they neared the cemetery, bells were rung to announce their arrival. Outside the cemetery gates were special flat stones on which the coffin was placed while waiting for the pastor and parish clerk. It was here that the coffin would be opened for the last time before it was nailed shut.

In earlier times funerals were held before divine worship on Sunday. In the latter half of the 19th century funerals began to be held on weekdays. The oldest pre-Christian cemeteries were situated near the villages and the first churches were built on the same site. As far back as the 13th century wealthy people could be buried under the church floor, but such burials were prohibited in 1773 and finally stopped by 1822.

In olden days cemeteries were divided by village, but by the 19th century this system was changed and in most parts of the country graves were arranged in rows. At that time churches began to hire gravediggers. Previously it was up to close relatives of the deceased to dig the grave. Some cemeteries were divided into sections: first, second, third and the poor. Prices for graves varied by section, but graves for the poor were free. Suicides and criminals could not be buried in consecrated land, and they usually were buried on the outer edge of the cemetery. Under the Land Act of 1442 suicides had to be taken to the forest and burned. Charnel houses for bones dug up in the cemetery were found only in western parts of Finland.

In the Middle Ages the coffin was first taken to the church where mass was said for the dead. After the Reformation it was taken directly to the grave until the 17th century. After that a funeral sermon was delivered in the church. By the 18th and 19th centuries the coffins of the gentry were taken into the church and then the practice spread to other social classes.

When the pastor and parish clerk met the funeral procession at the churchyard gates, the coffin was carried to the grave, accompanied by hymn singing. In some parishes the bells were rung while the coffin was carried to the grave. After the burial service the coffin was lowered into the grave. Since the Middle Ages it has been customary for the pastor to throw soil onto the coffin three times. While the grave was being filled, the bells could be rung for a fee. The funeral guests then went into the church and attended divine worship. In some parishes the chief mourners sat in the front row beneath the pulpit. The mourning period lasted for a year, but men usually observed it for only six months.

After the funeral service the mourners went to the house of the deceased. They were not allowed to look back at the cemetery. Often they would wash or take a sauna before sitting at the table. The funeral meal was similar to a wedding feast, with less dishes. In some parts of Finland the funeral meal included bean or pea soup with meat in it. It was common practice to kill a calf or sheep for a funeral. It was said that the animal was the “deceased’s portion.” In the Middle Ages the meat was considered a church tax. The burial fee to the pastor included a cow if the deceased was a farmer and the farm had at least six cows. Later money was given as the pastor’s fee, but in Ostrobothnia the pastor was still given a cow as late as the 1890s. Since the end of World War II the practice has been to go to some rooms near the church, or nearby café where they are served coffee.

After the grave was filled, a wooden cross or piece of wood like a gravestone was erected. The oldest preserved iron crosses date from the 17th century. Gravestones were not found on peasant graves prior to the 19th century. Since the 1930s when standard gravestones were introduced, cemeteries have lost much of their variety.

The Ecclesiastic Law of 1686 established that the period of mourning after the death of a spouse was one year for the women, and for men six months. In the 19th century only women wore mourning clothes.

According to an old tradition, a commemoration service for all the deceased members of the family was held in the autumn, usually All Soul’s Day in November. Among the Lutherans the dead have been remembered by placing lighted candles on the graves on All Saint’s Day (November 1) and Christmas Eve. This custom has been observed since 1920.

Extracted from “Finnish Folk Culture” by Ilmar Talve

Translation by June Pelo


[category:Articles by June Pelo]]

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