Tuesday, November 6, 2012

All Saints Day in Sweden~Allhelgona

It isn't uncommon, in a 'frequently wellness challenged' family, to loose a few weeks.  Managing minor ailments, fatigue, and whatever viruses are circulation in a family of five, can cause days, weeks, even months to blend together.   Finance Guy also slowed down his travel in October to have some quality time home with us in Sweden, so it really didn't seem right to ditch my sick children, and available spouse to sequester myself, collect my thoughts and commit them to digital paper.

We have also been dealing (from afar) with a loved with cancer.  I'm not going to discuss that in any great detail, but it has reminded me that most inflammatory chronic autoimmune illnesses end in cancer.  Usually the really bad kinds of cancer, not that there are any good ones...  For my Dad 30 years of elevated liver enzymes ended with liver cancer.  For our loved one now it is Type 2 diabetes (recently recategorized as an autoimmune illness), and pancreatic cancer.  I'm only a witness to this person journey, and I don't feel it is my place to say more.

Finance Guy left for the states today for a Board Meeting and to spend time with family during some challenging days.  This past weekend before he left, I drove him past our island's cemetery, hoping to witness a Swedish tradition that I had read about, but missed last year.

Saturday night, November 3, after the kids went bed, and the last of the Swedish trick or treaters cleaned out our Snickers bars, Finance Guy and I...snuck out.

It was a classic thriller halloween weekend moonlit night.  A misty fog hung in the air, just enough to give the moon an etherial glow and set the night chill deeper to our bones.  As we drove through the rolling woods, and fields of the nature preserve, I couldn't help thinking it was the kind of scene that zombies usually wander out of in movies. Halloween is only just catching on in Sweden, and doesn't have the same scary connotations as in the U.S.  But still as we drove toward the cemetery visions of zombies danced through my head.

Beside me sat my partner in crime (and life), armed with a dinky mag-lite and a couple of mini-snickers bars he absconded from the trick or treater bowl when I wasn't looking.  He is a man who likes to be prepared, (and knows his wife gets grumpy when she is hungry).  For political viability reasons, he may demand that I delete his photo from this post, but I couldn't resist. 
We arrived at the cemetery and the cars that lined the road earlier for a church service were all gone.  (By the way cars lining the road for a church service, not something seen often in Sweden.) We drove into the lot and parked next to the single car that remained.  Maybe everyone was gone, except a lone ax murderer, or a disgruntled Texan with a chainsaw...  As we stepped from the car we were both nervous, but the calm quiet chill of evening snapped me out of my 80's scary movie thoughts.  As we approached the cemetery gates we were met with the smell of burning wax and this sight.

Every grave was lit with candles, some with several.  The churchyard itself covered about 4-6 acres (1.5-2.4 hectares) and has inviting foot paths that wind through.  Like most cemeteries, some areas are densely populated with headstones, other area are still open fields patiently waiting.  Unlike many American cemeteries this one is tended on a daily basis.  Not only by cemetery personnel, but by the families of those interned.  It may sound morbid, but it is one of my favorite spots on my island.

Having been a hospice social worker in my past life, I'm no stranger to cemeteries.  I find a strange sort of comfort in them.  Maybe it's because I like to imagine the person and what their life was like. Maybe it's how it forces the existential dilemma upon me.  Maybe it's how my strolls among the graves have helped free me from personal paralysis brought on by psychologically imposed perfectionism.  'Really' I think to myself, 'does it really matter that much?  No matter what is done, or left undone, no amount of riches, or fame will prevent me from joining the ranks of the dead some day. " Eventually we will all be nothing more than a name on a headstone.

This night in Sweden, Allhelgona-All Saints Day, those names are remembered, and family and friends light a candle for the loved one who has gone on. Each light representing a loved one left behind.

As we strolled through, we could hear voices speaking softly in Swedish, and people were still arriving with paper sacks in hand containing candles and matches.  Some people would seek out a grave, but others would find a beautiful tree or ancient rock to light their tribute.  There were families with children, seniors with canes, and small groups of family and friends gathered.  We breathed in the beautiful stillness as we walked down grassy isles of headstones with names and dates lit by the flickering lights of candle glow. The smell of smoky wax filling the cool night air.  It will be a smell, I will forever associate with Sweden, much like the smell of burning pinyon pine and Santa Fe.

Candles at the mausoleum

Candles and heather placed around a reflecting pond.
Most of the candles were white, although we did see a few in red glass jars, shaped like hearts.  No gaudy colors, or flowers, just simple greens, with a rose or pinecone were laid upon graves.  Many people planted heather at the base of the stone.  Unlike America there was no grave, or family tribute that was trying to stand out above any others.  No one insinuating that their loss or grief was greater.  They were all the same.  The same loss. The same grief.  The same light of love that burns on.
A massive ancient oak, seemed a popular place to remember.

Unlike the rowdy, candy grubbing, party atmosphere of Halloween, there is a dignified simple beauty to how the Swedes remember their dead.  No zombies, or vampires.  No fear that the hand from Chiller Theater will reach from a grave and drag me in, just quiet flickering reflections of the lives that  extinguished before ours.

Maybe someone from Sweden would read this, and scoff at my American sentimentality.  It could be warranted but, with another person I love facing a cancer spawned from autoimmune disease, my thoughts and emotions about life and death are closer to my surface now.  But humble Sweden cannot deny that in their tradition, they have offer me another comfort in their cemetery.  It was clear to us, that the number of candles lit by the living in remembrance, far outnumbered the graves of the forgotten dead.

Tack på det Sverige.


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