By Marty Ludlum
My name is Marty Ludlum, and I’m a professor at the University of Central Oklahoma. I have had the honor of visiting our sister school, Arcada University in Helsinki in 2012 and 2014. While there I enjoyed the Finnish hospitality and friendly people.
I also enjoyed visiting Helsinki, which is remarkably easy to navigate for Americans with easy-to-use mass transit and almost everyone is fluent or at least functional in English (along with Swedish, Finnish, and German). Helsinki, being the nation’s capital, has many rich cultural treasures which are open to the public, including Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square, Linnanmaki Park, National Museum, Olympic Park, and the Suomenlinna Fortress, to name a few. (I could talk for hours about this, so I would encourage you to check out www.visithelsinki.fi/en for more information).
Being a college professor, I have many opportunities to travel, and I like to investigate not just the tourist areas, but also sample the local foods, local cultures, and see how life is different in these areas for a college professor or a magician (my hobby/second career?) or for a funeral director, which has been a big influence on my life.
I had opportunity to visit Mikko Mononen Oy Hautaustoimisto in central Helsinki. This is a traditional Finnish-style funeral home. While there, I got to speak with Sirpa Thil, a charming woman who graciously shared some of the details on the Finnish funeral industry with me. (Any mistakes in this description should be attributed to me).
First, I should give you some background about Finland. Finland has a population of less than 6 million, so it has a smaller population than Oklahoma or the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro area. Still, it has its own language and culture. One million people live in the Helsinki area which is in the far south coast of Finland. Interesting facts about Finland: it is home of the originators of Angry Birds (video game) and the headquarters of Nokia (cell phone). Also, Finland is heavily influenced by the Lutheran Church, which accounts for over 75% of the population.
Finland’s geography is rugged, to be sure. Finland is in Scandinavia, with long harsh winters. Finland is bordered by Sweden to west and Russia to east. Most of Finland’s land (86%) is heavily forested, causing most of the population to live in the southern tip (Helsinki area). The northern half of Finland is in the Arctic Circle. Winters there are 200 days long.
Finland has a unique political history. It was ruled by Sweden for 700 years. Then Finland was ruled by Russia for 120 years. For the past 100 years, Finland has been independent. However, there are still many cultural influences from Sweden and Russia in Finland, including architecture, art and religion. An excellent example is Uspenski Cathedral, a beautifully preserved example of Russian religious influence in central Helsinki.
When it comes to the funeral services industry in Finland, I found their traditions to be very interesting. I contrast all of their traditions to my view of the typical American rituals surrounding death, which I would summarize as: death, followed almost immediately by removal of the body by the funeral home, then embalming, then a visitation and viewing of the embalmed body at the funeral home, followed by a funeral service, then burial of the embalmed body, all occurring within a week of the death. That is fairly typical for America’s culture, with some minor changes in procedures for various religious and regional practices.
The Finnish funeral practices are nothing like this. First, among the Finnish, cremation is the norm. In Helsinki, (and southern Finland) there is an 85% cremation rate. In northern Finland, mostly sparsely populated rural areas, only about 20% are cremated.
One influence on cremation is the lack of cemetery space. In Helsinki, there is virtually no cemetery spaces left in most cemeteries. There are a few “public” graves.
I should explain that. Cemetery spots in Finland are not owned. They are “rented” for a period of 25 years, and can be used by the renting family multiple times during that 25 years. Each space has room for two-deep burials of embalmed bodies, as well as numerous spots for the burial of cremated ashes. As a result, during the 25 years your family uses this space, they could have two bodies buried there, and ten cremations buried there, all in the same space. If the family desires to keep the space at the end of 25 years, they can “rent” it again, making it a family cemetery spot for a very long time. Typical rent for a cemetery spot is €1000 ($1500 US) or more for 25 years. Since the cemetery spot is for multiple burials, the headstones are usually nothing more than the family name.
Finland is an old city (over 1000 years), and the cemetery spaces have been limited. The nearest cemeteries with a great deal of space are about 10 miles from the city center.
It is typical that upon death a person is not embalmed. Rather, the deceased remains in the hospital cooler for an extended period. The funeral home will take a wooden casket to the hospital and put the unembalmed body in the casket in hospital morgue. The casketed body is then taken to the cemetery for a cooler to await cremation. The cemetery staff handles the cremation and the memorial service.
Typically, the bodies are cremated, and have a memorial service 2-4 weeks after the death. The delay is caused in part by the difficult winter travel conditions and in part by the busy priests of the Lutheran Church, who handle 75% of all funerals, since its membership is 75% of the population.
Visitation (where the body is present) is almost non-existent, or very rare, and then done at a church. A Chapel service (several weeks after the cremation) is typical. This option is cheaper for the family since the chapel is in the graveyard where the cremation took place. A church service is more expensive, since there are more transportation costs. (In Finland, gas is very expensive, more than double the US cost).
Pallbearers (if not the funeral home staff) are typically immediate family since moving the body is done shortly after death. The memorial service is not for several weeks. In the winter, the ground is frozen and it may take days of heating the ground to allow even the burial of ashes. Burying an embalmed body in the winter is an extremely slow and labor intensive process, which is why culturally Finland has moved away from traditional burials.
Muslim and Eastern Orthodox services (the other dominant faiths in Finland) have services very rapidly after death (within 2-3 days) more similar to the American tradition. Still, the harsh winter weather makes services within a short time period quite difficult.
From the financial side, cremation and burial in Finland is about €2500 ($4000 US). A traditional American style service can cost €4000 or more ($6000 US) plus the cost of grave ($1500 US). If the deceased is a pauper, the city provides cremation and burial in a “public” grave (one used by many families). The funeral home is barely reimbursed, and then only for products, not really for services.
I hope this gave you an introduction to the very interesting and unique practices of the Finnish funeral industry. I encourage you to travel, and when you do, check out the interesting religious and cultural practices related to the funeral industry at every locale. Seeing how another culture handles the procedures around death and the survivors will enrich you on the purposes for the American burial customs for the families you serve. FBAProfessor Marty Ludlum is an Associate Professor of Legal Studies at the University of Central Oklahoma. He teaches in legal studies and international trade law. He is a dynamic lecturer and enjoys his interactions in the classroom. His research interests are business ethics, international trade, trends in regulation and regulated industries, including the death care industry. In the death care industry, Professor Ludlum has previously made presentations to several state and national associations. He has also written articles for national and state trade magazines. He can be reached by phone at 405-974-5341 or by email at [email protected]