Cemeteries in Sweden
While doing family history research it's common to search for the grave of an ancestor, hoping to get a birth or death date from a gravestone (especially in U.S. Research). But before you plan a trip to Sweden to visit cemeteries, you should consider some of the social and cultural differences. Here are a few things to consider:
Types of burial places
Historically burial places around the world have had different forms for example, burial places in the forest. Ancient burial places outside of a city are called necropolis. Jewish and Muslim congregations in Christian countries may have their own burial places often near the larger christian burial areas. Some burial places were created at the time of a epidemic, usually mass graves. These mass graves might only have been used as a burial place for the duration of the epidemic. Due to war, sometimes there are cemeteries specifically for military use.
A churchyard is the area around a church that is often used as a burial place. Churchyards are the most common place for burials in Sweden. Even Swedish cemeteries that do not have a church are called churchyards. Modern cemeteries in Sweden are often further out of a town and are equipped with a cemetery chapel.
Ancient Burials in Sweden
Very few graveyards have been found in Sweden that date back to stone age cultures. By the Bronze Age, cremations and other forms of burial were praticed. By the early Iron Age grave fields became common. Late Iron Age burial grounds are often linked to villages that are traced into Medieval times. By the 900's the practice of cremation on a burial pyre was done. Afterwards the burnt bones and personal items in an earthern vessel were buried where older burials had already taken place (often among stone circles, rock formations, or burial mounds.) Early Christian burials in Sweden show the skeletal remains often laid with their feet towards the east and the head towards the west to prepare for the great resurrection.
Decades after Christianity arrived in the 1000's, people founded common graves around the church buildings and the old farm cemeteries were abandoned. Over time the churchyards were organized by community or family. Graves were marked with planks or crosses made of wood. Up until the early 1800's the practice of having a family burial place in the churchyard, often as a low mound covered in deep grass with a modest wooden cross was common. Very few graves, usually in the cathedral churchyards or in cities, had a flat or standing marker of stone (often sandstone or limestone), or of iron.
Churchyards in Older times
In older times, a stone wall was built around churchyards to protect the grounds from larger wildlife. The wall would have one or more openings, often with a small wooden staircase, with wooden walls built up on the sides and a roof over the top. The churchyard of Täby has a good example of these portal structures. The southern and eastern parts of the churchyard were the most used for burials. In many places the northern part of the church yard was believed to be a unsuitable place for burials.
Unlike modern times, the graves were not placed in organized rows. At times the churchyards were used for grazing. They were used for public gatherings, public announcements, court sessions, markets, or even outdoor plays.
Martin Luther spoke out in disapproval of the misuse of churchyards which was supported by the Swedish Lutheran church leadership. There are witnessed accounts of graves that were opened for use during the 1600 and 1700's where bones from previously buried people were left on the surface rather than reburied in the new grave. For this reason the benhus (literally meaning the bone house) was built, where one could deposit them. Åker church and Strängnäs cathedral have examples of surviving benhus.
The burial place of the nobility or clergy was often in the church, under the floor with flat stone markers, in built up monuments, tombs, or even family chapels. In 1633 a burial chapel was built for King Gusaf II Adolf in Riddarholms church in Stockholm which became the pattern for the nobility. For the rest of the 1600’s and 1700’s many parish churches had a burial chapel built. Another tradition was the creation of burial shields (for the nobility) that were carried during the funeral services and eventually mounted on the wall in the parish church. The burial shield might include an epitaph with the design of the deceased persons nobility shield, or even a sculpture carved out of wood which was painted. This practice was even done in rural parish buildings where the noble family had prominence. By 1779 the ecclesiastical government body (prästståndet) began to question the value of burials in the church buildings. In 1815 the practice of burial in the church buildings was forbidden. The nobility or the clergy were given a prominent place in the churchyard instead, often with a little iron fence or a stone edging around the grave.
The Sanctity of Burial Places
Toward the end of the 1700’s the churchyards became enclosed. In 1776 an official communication was sent out to the parishes stating that the walls around the churchyards should be of stone replacing other constructions that were not as stabile. During the 1700’s there were efforts to plant trees in the churchyards. The hope was that the trees would help improve the smell of the churchyards, especially in overpopulated larger cities. As the population increased during the 1800’s (largely due to peacetime, vaccinations, and potato’s) society had a greater need for additional cemeteries’. This became an acute problem in the cities because of concerns with sanitation. A government ordinance was passed in 1810 to create new cemeteries’ outside of the cities. The first cemetery created to meet this need is part of the Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm city that was dedicated in 1827 by Bishop Johan Olof Wallin. As a consequence to epidemics additional cemeteries were created in the 1800’s such as the Kolerakyrkogårdar (Cholera cemeteries’) around the country. These newer cemeteries had a more modern plan, with consistent lot structure, and individual burial places. Even the inscriptions on grave markers from this time period have a greater consistency with birth and death dates, or even scriptural quotations. These markers vary according to social class ranging from the anonymous to the grandiose. Many family graves are from this time period, where the associated lots continue to be reused by family members only.
The Re-use of Burial Plots
Within the Swedish culture there has been a long standing practice to re-use burial plots. By law there is a person or family that is responsible for the care and upkeep of a grave. This right is preserved by contract for normally 25 years. This responsibility includes a fee to the parish or cemetery for the grounds keeping etc. When the duration of the contract has expired, the cemetery authority will contact the responsible party to see if they are interested in renewal. If the responsible party decides to release their right, then the cemetery will remove the grave marker and reuse the burial plot. As the practice of reusing burial plots has been happening for over 100 years, finding a very old ancestral grave with the grave marker is unlikely. On the other hand you can search the cemetery sexton records (or even in databases such as Begravda i Sverige) to locate a burial place. Although gravestones have been removed, and burial plots have been re-used, people still feel a reverence as they pay respect in visiting a churchyard or cemetery.
Graves for People of Other Denominations
People of different religious beliefs (other than the Swedish Lutheran Church) have also had their own cemeteries in Sweden. The first Jewish cemetery was created on the island of Kungsholm in Stockholm in 1776. The first Catholic cemetery since the reformation was created within the Norra begravningsplaten in Stockholm in 1847. Immigration to Sweden after the Second World War led to the creation of cemeteries for Muslims and Orthodox Christians.
Cremation in Sweden
Historically Stockholm has had the highest rate of cremation. The first crematorium in Sweden was built in the Norra begravningsplatsen in Stockholm in 1909. As the preference for cremation has increased, the cemeteries have created places for the placement of urns in the ground, columbarium’s, and memory groves. The urnlunder are places where the urn has been buried and a grave marker has been placed. Columbarium’s are places where the urns have been placed in a structure built onto the church or even a separate building for that purpose. The memory groves are places where the urn has been buried without a grave marker, or in some cases spread in a designated area.
Well known Cemeteries’ in Sweden
- Wikipedia Community, Begravningsplats, Swedish Wikipedia 2012
- Edvard Lehmann, ”Begravning”, Svensk uppslagsbok, 3. Malmö 1930
- Göran Malmstedt, Bondetro och kyrkoro. Religiös mentalitet i stormaktstidens Sverige. Lund * 2002
- Ewert Wrangel, ”Gravkonst”, Svensk uppslagsbok, 11. Malmö 1932
- Ewert Wrangel, ”Kyrkogård”, Svensk uppslagsbok, 16. Malmö 1933
- Göran Åstrand, Känt och okänt på Stockholms kyrkogårdar. Stockholm 1998