The Swedish custom of funerals stands the test of time

Photo: Torbjörn Berglund

(Published 2013-10-28)
Customs and practices are constantly changing. Previous research has shown that the Christian customs of attending a church service, christening, confirmation and church wedding have weakened. One study however shows that funeral practices have remained consistent and are also carried out fairly similarly throughout the country, regardless of who is buried.

The research was supported by the Swedish Council for Social Research (SFR). During the second and third quarter of 1997 the Faculty of Theology at Lund University collected a comprehensive volume of survey data.
The data material, which is now available from the study Funerary Practices in the 1990s, was authored by Göran Gustafsson, today Professor Emeritus of Sociology of Religion at Lund University. His research areas are religion and politics, funerals, practices regarding church customs etc.

– Everyone ”knows” how funerals are held but this is an area that has not been researched extensively, says Göran Gustafsson.
The collection was part of the project ”Funeral Practices – A Study of Social Differences after Death”. Already at the planning stage of the project, the fundamental idea was that the main data for the study would be provided by a broad survey of the large majority of all funerals in the Church of Sweden.
The surveys provide information about a number of factors regarding funeral customs in contemporary Sweden. Examples of data are weekday, time between death and funeral, membership in the Church of Sweden, immigration status/immigration background, free church membership, the priest’s familiarity with the deceased, premise and public announcements but also instances of relatives of the deceased arranging their own gatherings. The survey questions capture the social and ritual aspects of the funeral services.

– The surveys were meant not only to deal with what happened inside the church or chapel but also cover what happened before and after the service.
The results for example show that the average funeral takes 38 minutes; they have a tendency to be somewhat longer in the western parts of Sweden and somewhat shorter in the Mälaren Valley region, especially in Stockholm.

– This is a common pattern when it comes to activities within the Church of Sweden, says Göran Gustafsson.
A common detail such as who is the closest surviving relative is different between the sexes; when a man dies, there is a wife in half of the cases, when a woman dies there is a husband or cohabiting partner listed as closest relative in one fourth of the cases. Married women survive their husbands to a greater extent than married men survive their wives, and women also survive their male siblings to a greater extent than men survive their female siblings.
Funeral practices in Sweden are largely defined through the order of service for funerals in Den svenska kyrkohandboken, which can be translated as The Swedish Church Manual. Previous research regarding these customs and practices is very scarce.