Funeral director: Swedes delay burials because of a fear of death

11 min

Swedes used to have two months after the death of a loved one to bury them. A few years ago that was changed to one month, but many Swedes find it is too short.

It is a somewhat odd world record that Sweden has. But that is what they say: no-where in the world does it take that long between someone has died, before they are in the ground.

Three years ago, the law changed from two months down to one month, and that speeded up the process a bit. But the average number of days between death and funeral is now on its way up again and relatives end up applying for exemptions from the rule.

Before May 2012, the Swedish average time between death and funeral was 21 days. Six months after the one month limit was introduced, the average was down to 19.2 days. But last year it had gone up to 19.6 days as an average between death and a funeral in Sweden.

This can be compared to Norway, where the law says you have to do it within two weeks, Denmark, where you've got 8 days. In France you have 6 and in the Netherlands it's 5 days.

Author and journalist Lotta Möller has written a book called 'Hejdå!' Or 'Bye, Bye! The funeral book' where she compares the funeral customs and laws in different countries. She explains that much of what we see in Sweden today stem from the funeral law from 1991, that stated you could wait 2 months before burying someone. And though the health autorities at the time protested against the long time span, the reason given by the legislators was the long distances that relatives had to travel in order to get to the funeral.

"And then the whole system adapted to this two month span: the funeral directors could work more leasurely, it wasn't so urgent to arrange the funeral immediately. And the church limited the number of days for funerals and there were no more funerals for instance on Saturdays. Most churches and chapels only have two days where you can have funerals," says Lotte Möller.

In Stockholm, most churches seem to reserve the weekend for weddings and christenings, which leaves funerals to weekdays. And with relatives needing to travel to get to the burial, Fridays quickly gets booked up.

"60 percent of the one who come to a funeral director, want the funeral on a Friday. And that is a big problem, they must have it near a weekend. If they could have it on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, we wouldn't have this problem," says Ulf Lerneus, chairman of the Funeral Directors Association.

But part of the explanation for the long period between death and funeral in Sweden also has to do with the attitudes of the relatives, who seem in no hurry to bury their loved ones. According to Lotte Möller this is something that developed over time, once the two month-limit had been set back in the beginning of the 90s.

"The mentality sort of changed. People said they had to grieve before. You can hear this often in Sweden: the funeral can only take place when the grieving is done. And in other countries, first of all it is the funeral and then you can start grieving," says Lotte Möller.

"You can find people who take a vacation and go to the Canary islands to grieve before they return home and bury mum or whoever it is," says Möller.

Lotta Henriksson, at IGNIS undertakers in Stockholm, can think of two reasons for this attitude among the relatives. Partly it has to do with Swedes becoming secularised. That they are simply not used to going to church, unless it is for a wedding, a christening or a funeral. The other reason is how we relate to the end of life.

"Swedes are really terrified of death, we think that if you don't talk about death, we think that if we don't talk about death it does not exist. And we try to put it off and put it off, but finally you have to because it is the law that says you have to bury a person in a month," she says.

So how does this work for people in their mourning process?

"I think you just put your grief on the shelf. You don't deal with it. But it is still there, it is not going anywhere. So usually, people put it off until after the funeral, then all these feelings come. And they can get really, really sad. And then people - relatives, or colleagues or whatever - think 'now the funeral it is over, ok it is fine, we are back to normal'. It is not. That is the time when the mournerrs really mourn," says Lotta Henriksson, assistant funeral director at IGNIS undertakers in Stockholm.

In addition to the effect it has on the mourning process, the long period between death and funeral also has a more practical aspect. It leaves Sweden with very big morgues. Lotte Möller describes how a Danish undertaker came to Sweden to pick up a body of a diseased Dane and was shocked to see the size of the morgue, with all the dead bodies waiting to be buried.

In Stockholm, the morgues have decided to routinely embalms bodies ten days after they have died, in order to somewhat halt the decomposition process. This is something that relatives often have very vague ideas about, says Lotta Henriksson.

"Most Swedes have this assumption that dead people are put in a freezer and there they stay exactly the same for this whole month until the funeral. It is not true! We are put in a morgue. The morgue is like a big refrigerator. Of course it prevents the body from decomposing as soon as it would if you kept it out in the air. But still it is decomposing every minute, every day. And it is difficult to explain this to people. They don't want to realise it," says Lotta Henriksson.