The Night of the Dead

I quite like cemeteries. There’s one in Parnell, Auckland that has stories about the early white settlers and their relationships with local Maori. I’ve also been to one in Perth, Western Australia that has cages over the freshly dug graves so that wild kangaroos won’t dig them up. But I didn’t expect to be wandering around in the dark in a Finnish cemetery last night.

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Hietaniemi Cemetery is a huge piece of land that contains the graves of some of Finland’s most notable people, including fallen soldiers. We walked past it every day on our way to the beach last summer and I was fascinated by what I saw.

A stall outside sells potted plants for placing on graves. This intrigues me because in NZ we tend to just lay fresh or plastic flowers down. In Finland however they plant the flowers into the gravesite so that they continue to grow.

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They also have a bucket of trowels and scissors you can borrow to dig the plants in and tend to the gravesite.

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Traditionally burial in Finland has been free for members of the Lutheran Church (attendance not compulsory) and I believe you can pay someone to tend to your loved ones grave if you are unable to do it. Burial plots in NZ and Australia can be quite expensive and there are advertisements on TV to get funeral insurance so you can have the send-off you want.

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As we move into the colder months in Helsinki the plants being sold for grave sites are becoming more hardy, things that have more of a chance of surviving winter.

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Yesterday was All Saints Day, where Finnish people remember those who have passed away. We don’t mark this day in NZ so were surprised by the public holiday.

Finnish traditions go a long way back, including Joulupukki (the Christmas goat who later became known as Santa Claus), solstice celebrations and children dressing as witches on Palm Sunday. I guess the missionaries who arrived in NZ in the 18th century only brought with them the traditions they wanted to keep and not any they may have considered pagan.

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It’s traditional for Finnish people to visit the graves of loved ones on 1 November. The cemetery stalls and markets were selling havu – branches bundled together to lay on graves – and candles. I tentatively headed off to the cemetery by myself last night in the dark to witness this part of Finnish life.

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The streets around the cemetery were full of people and cars, as though there was a major event on. The grounds were full of people, including children, lighting candles on graves.

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In spite of the crowds, at times I would find myself alone, wandering amongst the headstones. Looking down towards the water I could see thousands of candles, as the bells tolled in the chapel. It was 3 degrees and my breath made white clouds in the night air.

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I was amazed that candles had been lit on nearly every grave, even on those of people who had died in the early 1900s – it seems no one is forgotten on this day.

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Wandering around the cemetery at night I actually tried to scare myself, narrating a horror movie in my head with me as the lead actor, but it didn’t really work. There was a special kind of stillness about the place. It seemed like a beautiful time to remember those you’ve lost.

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I think this is a beautiful tradition that would be good to commemorate in NZ. We are such a multi-cultural country I’m sure there are Maori traditions or newer cultures that have brought with them similar customs. I think a lesson from Finland is that even the things which we’ve buried need not be forgotten.