A new kind of funeral? How religious rituals are changing in secular Sweden

Sweden is seeing a sharp rise in burials without a ceremony, writes Anne-Christine Hornborg, professor emerita at Lund University, in this opinion piece first published by The Conversation.

A new kind of funeral? How religious rituals are changing in secular Sweden
Are traditional funerals a thing of the past? Photo: Gorm Kallestad/NTB Scanpix/TT

The number of people who bury their dead relatives without any official ceremony is increasing rapidly in Sweden, up from less than two percent a decade ago to eight percent this year. In many big cities, the bodies of about one in ten deceased people are transferred directly from the hospital to a crematorium, with the ashes often scattered or buried by staff in anonymous memorial parks.

According to The Swedish Funeral Home Association, which released the data, such burials are extremely rare in other countries. Although according to new data from the UK's largest funeral director, Co-op Funeralcare, they are also on the rise in the UK – with one in 25 funerals being direct cremations, perhaps inspired by the late musician David Bowie.

One explanation for their popularity in Sweden could be that it is one of the most secular countries in the world, and often resists tradition. But with the majority of young people in 12 European countries reporting they have no faith, could it take off elsewhere too? And does it mean that rituals in general are on their way out?

A crematory in Sweden. Photo: Anna Hållams/TT

In Sweden, the number of regular churchgoers has been declining for some time and continues to do so. It seems like traditional church rituals don't attract modern, secular people, who may experience them as meaningless.

Take weddings. Traditional church ceremonies are reliable: if you accept and follow the rules and the authority of the ceremonial leader, the marriage will be established. But such rituals are often experienced as formal practices and lacking in personal touches.

While some wedding couples still get married in church – often for aesthetic or historical reasons – the majority of Swedes today opt for non-religious weddings. This can sometimes be in nature or in more spectacular places.


Obituaries offer another insight into how Swedes are moving away from religion. Today, the symbols used in obituaries to refer to the deceased are most often indexical signs rather than the traditional cross, which originally signalled eternal life. A teddy bear can be used when the deceased is a child, a sailing boat for the sailor, flowers for a nature lover and so on.

And funerals have been changing for some time. While the majority of funerals are still carried out by the church, some opt for non-religious ceremonies. In many western countries today, pop songs or ballads that the deceased loved are often played rather than traditional, religious hymns. A historical popular Swedish funeral song was based on the image of heaven as “a town above the clouds”, with “beaches drowned in sunshine”.

But that message doesn't appeal to the modern person. Non-religious people don't pin their hopes on an afterlife. It is the life here and now that must be fulfilled. This is reflected in a song from the popular Swedish movie As It Is In Heaven which is now also frequently played at funerals: “And the heaven I thought existed… I will find here somewhere… I want to feel that I have lived my life.”

Clearly, the rise of secularism is linked to a rise in individualism – in the absence of a god and an afterlife, we and the now become increasingly important. So just as we can see in both weddings and funerals, modern rituals focus increasingly on the individual.

A Swedish high school graduation. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

For example, in Sweden the celebration of A-level graduation (high school) is becoming an increasingly important ritual. Non-religious naming ceremonies for babies are also becoming more popular, at the expense of traditional baptism. In 2000, 72 percent of Swedish babies were baptized compared to 42 percent in 2010.

This shift to individualism is backed up by research. The US religious studies scholar Catherine Bell stated that new rituals also tend to be more private than public. “Doctrines and ethical teachings are downplayed in favour of language that stresses highly personal processes of transformation, realization, and commitment,” she wrote in the book Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions.

This has also been commodified in the form of coaching and lay therapy (that is, therapy not based on school medicine or traditional church counseling), as I have shown in my research. In these new practices, a person's “inner potential” or “authentic me” is to be identified and liberated by self-certified entrepreneurs.

This pursuit of “human inner capital” is pervasive in management courses, media and talk shows, and has become a spiritual movement of sorts. It generates new practices – or new rituals of self improvement such as daily affirmations – that can also influence the performance of traditional ceremonies.

With these new, individual-centered rituals, focusing on the present life rather than the hereafter, it is not surprising that many Swedes are buried without any ceremony. There are often requests for the ashes to be spread in places that the deceased had been connected to, like the sea.

In many of these cases, the deceased had requested such a burial – sometimes because they didn't want to create extra work for their relatives. In other cases, it is a financial decision, or the relatives could not agree on what ceremony ought to be used. Sometimes there are no relatives – Sweden has the highest number of people living alone in the world.

But how likely is it that this type of funeral will become standard practice – in Sweden or elsewhere? It's probably unlikely to happen anytime soon. Many mourners feel the need to mark the end of a life somehow – something that fits with individualism, too. That said, it is likely that non-religious funerals and private ceremonies will become more common than traditional funerals in increasingly secular countries in the years to come.

Research has also shown that the internet is offering a new way of mourning, giving eternal life to the dead via Facebook for example. This enables others to send birthday greetings or share memories of the dead on the day they died – a sort of ceremony.

It is clear that in spite of secularization, modernity, and individualization, rituals are not disappearing, they are just changing forms and adapting to new contexts.

Article by Anne-Christine Hornborg, Professor Emerita of History of Religions, Lund University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Readers reveal: The best and worst things about life in Malmö, Lund and Skåne in general

None of Skåne's cities can compete alone with fast-growing, dynamic Stockholm. But taken together, the twin cities of Malmö and Lund offer just about everything the capital can in terms of jobs and cultural fizz, plus some extra benefits. We asked our readers for the best - and worst - things about living and working in the region.

Readers reveal: The best and worst things about life in Malmö, Lund and Skåne in general
Malmö's Western harbour development gives residents seaside living in apartments designed by top architects. Photo: Justin Brown/Imagebank Sweden
Ever the plucky underdog, Sweden's third biggest city can make a pretty good case for itself as an expat destination in its own right. The past 30 years have seen it rise from the wreckage of its ship-building industry and become a hub for creative industries such as game design, advertising, and tech start-ups. 
The Öresund train links the city to the research-driven industries of Lund on one side and to the Copenhagen on the other and many international people living in the city commute to work in one of those two places. 
The local government, meanwhile, has been working hard to bring culture to the city, with a packed schedule of events at the state-of-the-art new Malmö Live concert venue, and free activities for children and adults throughout the year. 
The nearness to the continent makes Malmö Sweden's most European city — at times it can feel like a mini version of Berlin. 
And the relatively lower cost of living compared to Stockholm and Gothenburg makes the city more relaxed, attracting Swedes from elsewhere who are a little less career-driven. 
Malmö often feels like Sweden's most European city. Photo: Karolina Friberg/ImageBank Sweden
But what do local residents think? 
When we spoke to our readers living in Malmö, the draw most commonly cited was that it is small enough for everything to be in reach by bus or bicycle, but still big enough to feel like a proper city. 
“Malmö is extremely well organized,” says Carys Egan-Wyer. “Large parts of the city centre are more or less car-free and walking, biking and public transport are prioritized, making it a pleasant place to be.” 
“There is always something going on,” she adds. “Especially in the summer, when there are tons of free events for kids and adults alike” 
“Malmö is a “small big city”, so you get the perks of city life without feeling too overwhelmed by it,” agrees Priscilla Silva. 
None of our readers felt Malmö was too small, quiet or parochial. Indeed, Ian Wilson said one of the things he liked most was “living in a cultural city, with many restaurants, concerts, and exhibitions”. 
Other readers felt that the city's surroundings were an attraction, with Paul Rhys pointing out that it was “close to the sea on one side and to tons of woods and lakes on the other”. 
The countryside inland from Malmö is full of luxuriant beech woods perfect for foraging. Photo: Miriam Preis/
Others thought the good transport links to Copenhagen and Lund were a key benefit. 
But experienced commuters complained of the high prices of rail tickets, and also the transport's unreliability, with Ian Mark Wilson citing “stressful commutes because of the unreliable train service” as the chief downside of Malmö life. 
Residents said it was important that you try to arrange accommodation before you arrive in Malmö as it can be hard to find rentals, especially in popular areas. Once you arrive, you should quickly put yourself down on the rental waiting lists. 
Others recommended solving the housing problem by looking for places to live in nearby cities and villages. 
Finally, residents recommended meeting other international residents, possibly by joining groups aimed at expats, to make friends and avoid getting lonely. 
Lund Cathedral, opened in 1145, is one of Sweden's oldest medieval cathedrals. Photo: Per Pixel Petersson/ImageBank Sweden
Malmö's sister city is growing visibly as new office areas and industry clusters sprout to its north, a new tram network is built, and the Max IV and the ESS particle accelerators put it on the map for international Big Science, drawing expertise from across the world. 
But it is still at heart a university town, much calmer than Malmö. And despite the international talent drawn to its high-tech industries and research centres, it often feels like there's not a lot going on. 
The chief advantages of Lund life cited by readers were the beautiful historic city centre, with its medieval houses and cathedral, the lively student life, and the highly educated and international non-student population. 
According to Shubhranshu Daebnath, it's an “intellectual town where almost half of the people have higher education degrees”. 
On the downside, residents complained that when the students went home, the city could become too quiet. 
“Lund is a university town and unfortunately, the city does not offer much if you're not a student,” said Charlton Leny. “Life is rather quiet and can be pretty boring.” 
The stretch of countryside between Malmö and Lund was also flat and relatively unattractive, people complained. 
The other defect was the difficulty securing housing in the city. 
“If you want to be in Lund, be prepared to have to buy a house because of the lack of family-sized rental apartments,” says Bill Boyer. “Be prepared to pay a lot for housing if you want to be able to cycle to work, school, or Lund centre.” 
Several residents were also tired of engineering works to build the city's new tram system. 
“This fancy project has made people living in Lund really mad, causing so many problems to make their way around town,” grumbled Eva Hagen. “No one but them, the politicians, wants [the updates]. Very, very expensive as well.” 
Bright yellow fields of rapeseed can be seen across Skåne in the early summer. Photo: Jerker Andersson/Imagebank Sweden. 
The rest of Skåne
A third of our respondents lived in neither Malmö or Lund, and even some residents of Skåne's two main cities recommended looking further afield. 
One resident of Helsingborg recommended the city, describing it as “beautiful and close to the sea” and, like Malmö, “is a city but feels like a town”. 
Rachel Irwin, who lives in Dalby, a commuter village for both Malmö and Lund, said that she valued the sense of community. 
“I actually know my neighbours. It's beautiful and very close to nature,” she said. 
And Irwin, who moved down from Stockholm, said she felt the attraction of the Skåne countryside was often underrated. 
“Skåne is fantastic. I lived in Stockholm before and I find Skåne much more relaxed,” she aid. “There are so many things to see and so in Skåne; so many castles, farm shops, beaches, hiking, museums and more.” 
Several residents of Malmö and Lund also recommended that newcomers instead look outside the big cities to the villages and towns of Skåne. 
Silva, who lives in Malmö, recommended that anyone considering a move should look at the smaller seaside towns on the West coast. “Don’t limit yourself to the big cities like Malmö or Helsingborg. There is charm in the small-to-medium sized towns like Ystad and Simrishamn,” she said. 
Lund resident Eva Hagen recommended the south coast. “Find a home in a peaceful village or small town along the southern coast. The West coast is heavily populated,” she said. 
Thank you to everyone who responded to our survey. All your comments contributed to this article, even though we weren't able to include each one.