paragraph 31

Burial law discriminates against non-believers

4:48 min

Families in Sweden who want to split the ashes after cremating a loved one need special permission from the authorities. In the past decade, the number of applications has more than doubled in Stockholm county. Among them are two Japanese-Swedish families - one was granted permission to take part of the ashes to Japan, but the other family saw their application rejected.

Ken Hakata was born in Sweden but his parents moved here from Japan. Last year, his father died after a short period of illness - not all of his family in Japan even knew he was sick.

"Now my only family is my mother and the rest of the family is in Japan," he says.

"We didn't know really how our father wanted the funeral and where he wanted his grave. We thought maybe it would be best to split the ashes and have one place in Sweden and one in Japan so that the people who cared for him would have a place to remember him," Hakata says.

"We didn't know about the laws in Sweden so we thought it thought it was no big deal to split the ashes."

It turned out to be much more complicated due to paragraph 31 in the Swedish burial law. It states that "permission can only be granted if there are special reasons and it is evident that the ashes will be handled in a pious manner."

Ken Hakata's family respects Shintu and Buddhist traditions, but they don't consider themselves particularly observant. For them, bringing part of the ashes back to Japan was not about piety, but about giving the family there the opportunity to grieve.

Stockholm county at first asked the Hakatas for complementary information to their application.

"We said there was some religious reasons too but it wasn't enough, I think," says Ken.

Finally, their application was rejected.

Ten years ago, the Stockholm county's office received five applications to split ashes. By last year, the number had more than doubled - 12 letters were received.

There are many Indian names in the paper work - Hindus who want to scatter part of the ashes in the holy river Ganges. Revisions to the law specifically mention Hindus but also Buddhists as two groups who should be given due consideration.

In the long list of families who have applied for permission, there is also a second Swedish-Japanese family.

When a young Japanese woman married to a Swedish man passed away early last year, the priest Arne Wikström held the memorial service here in Stockholm in both Swedish and Japanese - which he had learned to speak after 16 years in Sapporo.

The family declined the offer to be interviewed on the radio, and instead asked that Arne Wikström speak for them, and explain why splitting the ashes was so important.

"Dead people, and honouring them, is very important in Japan, they kind of live with them for a very long time," wikström says. "They talk to the dead people, so for instance if they go just for shopping they'll say 'Darling, I'm going shopping, I'll be back in a minute, you just look after the house.'"

Arne Wikström had never heard of the Swedish law that required the family to ask for permission.

"No, not really, I was kinda surprised, I thought it was easy to get part of the ashes," he says.

And in this family's case, the permission was granted. Part of the woman's ashes are now in the care of her family back home.

And although the Swedish law makes exceptions for other religious practices, Arne Wikström says that for Japanese families it is much more a question of culture and traditions, rather than strictly following scripture.

"In Japan, most of the people aren't very religious but they keep to the tradition, and for the funeral most people are buried in the Buddhist tradition."

The law gives no leeway for families who want to split the ashes for cultural reasons, let alone for private or sentimental ones.

"I think it's difficult for (the authorities) to decide who is religious enough, because that is not easily determined," says Wikström.

"I don't think that is the job of the authorities. There should be someone thinking this law over again so it can be more up to date, there are so many people who really want to honour their dead."

The ashes of Ken Hakata's father are now buried in the Stockholm suburb Sollentuna, where he spent most of his adult life. The son is also critical of the law.

"It's crap, I think it's really odd," he says. "I don't know why it exists because if there are some relatives they should be able to do what they want with the ashes."

He says his family in Japan was surprised that such a law even existed in Sweden, but Ken and his mother decided not to appeal the decision.

"We were of course disappointed but we tried to move on."

Ann Törnkvist
Radio Sweden