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In ancient Finnish folk belief, death received positive overtones. In rituals surrounding death, the departure of an individual took on a cosmic framework which articulated the unique event as part of the cycles of nature. Activities associated with death followed the setting of the sun, the cycle of the moon and the changing of the year. They were timed in such a way that everyone had to be present: the deceased was to be in his or her grave before sunset, or - based on the mythic model of the time between Good Friday and Easter Sunday - at least within three days of death. After six weeks, in Karelia, came the kuusnetäliset, the 'six weeks' provender, recalling the period spent by Christ on Earth before his ascension to heaven. The calender year still has days of remembrance dedicated to the dead in spring and autumn.

For a year after his or her death, the person was a vainaja (deceased), without individuality or a given name, which the people of old subsequently avoided using. A year was, in Finnish society, the most important milestone; the period of mourning, during which a widow was not allowed to marry or amusements to be enjoyed in the house of mourning. Finnish revivalist movements cultivated the habit of meeting for remembrance on the one-year anniversary of death, even when these meetings were forbidden by law, and through them this beautiful tradition has survived to this day.

Encounters with the dead in dreams were expected during the time of mourning, and subsequently feared. The rituals of death aimed at the success of social transference, so that 'the dead would not walk at home'. A flock of waxwings in the rowan tree at home was evidence of a successful crossing of the border. (According to tradition, it was best to return in the form of a bird.)

The culture of death was at first different in different parts of Finland, but in the 19th century it became part of the overall Lutheranculture. Differences in the culture of death have survived for ecological and historical reasons. One important ecological factor is connected with the forests and waters of eastern Finland. The eastern distant graveyard is part of the belief-system of the hunting and fishing culture and its mobile way of life, while the western graveyard, close to the village, speaks of the world-view of an agrarian culture that has already settled down.

The old, eastern Finnish tradition was to mark the border-line between village and church, living and dead, by carving a cross and initial on a rowan tree on the path along which the body was carried, in memory of the person whose memorial tree or cross-rowan it was. The memorial tree was a marker which the dead person was not allowed to pass. The eastern Finnish tradition tells of dead people who leave their graves to go home, but return to the graveyard having seen the cross and the mark.

The eastern burial ground gradually became a graveyard, which had in the west been the resting place of the dead since the Middle Ages - first under the church, and then inside it. In the east, graves were long marked with the wooden cross that was the symbol of the Finnish forest culture. This was only gradually displaced by the western gravestone, first for the clergy and persons of rank, then for everyone.

In western graveyards, the more high-ranking the family, the closer the graves are to the church. The wooden cross of the eastern tradition was more egalitarian in terms of both the living and the dead: it disappeared around the same time as the memory of the person at whose feet is stood. The eastern Finnish tradition reflects a thought that belongs to the Finnish world-view: A person lives as long as he is remembered.

Death has its own grammar in Finland: a vocabulary, the mastery of portents and marks, beliefs, stories and customs. Laments were sacral poetry through which the eastern Finns interpreted death, the journey to the other side and the interaction which the poetry of death is at its profoundest. The lament brought a liberated anarchy to grief as the keener set the pace for each individual's grief. Lullabies of death are known only in Finland and Estonia.

The tradition of death, which also appears in the Kalevala, formed a 'book of death' which was passed from one genera-tion to the next. The epic of death tells of the heroes' journeys beyond the Tuonelanjoki River, to cold Pohjola, the underground Manala, the other side of heaven.

The vocabulary of death is the oldest layer in the Finnic languages. The original terminology of the soul of the Finno-Ugrians reflects their conceptions of life and death.

Behind the Finnish tradition of self-destruction or suicide lies, partially, the mythic model of voluntary death that is prevalent in Nordic cultures. This is the right accorded to heroes to determine the way to go, when and where. The Kalevala ends with the judgment of Vainämöinen, in which the hero's death is the exceptional departure of the shaman.

Just as the vocabulary of death is among the oldest layers in the Finnish language, customs associated with death are among the most central elements in the Finnish world-view. Finns' beliefs, attitudes and behavior in relation to death are still bound by tradition, and they are seldom able to verbalize, still less justify, how and why. In other words, the tradition is still primarily part of the mental land-scape, but it also be seen in the cultural landscape, in graveyards, customs and words.

In the family, kinship and village communities of former times, death was a shared experience which had a meaning that supported the community. This culture of death began to change after the industrialization, urbanization and emigration that followed the Second World War. Particularly during the accelerating changes of the 1960s and 1970s, links with ecological roots in home parishes were severed, as were the transgenerational links of family and kin in which the Finnish culture of death had its being. The disappearance of many customs, for example viewing the body, expresses the fears of a generation that 'denies death' that it is passing on its own lack of values to its children. The shifting of death from homes to outside life, is an expression of this. When death visited traditional communities, the entire house and village participated.

Contemporary Finnish culture shows signs of a fumbling toward lost transgenerational roots, for example in the increased habit of family visits to graveyards on Christmas Eve and All Souls' Day to light candles on graves. A peculiarly Finnish cult is attached to the Day of the Fallen. The military grave at Hietaniemi in Helsinki, centered on the tomb of C.G.E. Mannherheim, is a sacred space for a national cult. War veterans play a central part in preserving the cult, through military graves throughout the country and memorials to red and white casualties of the Civil War of 1918. Observing the principle that 'a brother does not abandon his brother', they honor every veteran's funeral with their presence.

by Juha Pentikäinen in "Finland, a cultural encyclopedia"


June Pelo


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