Death notices get cute’n’quirky in Sweden

Some depict a boat sailing off into the sunset, others a curled up cat, or why not a favourite team logo? Almost anything goes for death notices in Swedish newspapers, where personalized drawings are a growing trend.

Death notices get cute'n'quirky in Sweden

When it comes to births and marriages, Swedes’ tastes run fairly traditional with photographs accompanying the announcements in the newspaper.

But for a death, families can choose from a bevy of small symbols to place at the top of the notice box.

The practice is believed to be unique in the world, giving a sometimes cartoon feel to the sombre subject at hand.

“About 10 years ago it really started to pick up. Before there were mostly crosses but the newspapers started to accept more and more symbols and they expanded very quickly,” explains Christer Larsson, in charge of family notices in Sweden’s largest daily Dagens Nyheter.

He pulls out a booklet showing a selection of drawings and symbols suggested by funeral homes, categorized by religion, animals (pets are as popular in death as in life), flowers and plants, sports team logos, and miscellaneous, including a lute, candle, grand piano, treble clef, saxophone, heart or teddy bear.

“In general the symbols are usually related to the work of the deceased or their hobbies. For instance a wrench means the person was probably a handyman,” he says.

A recent notice announcing the death of “our beloved” Gerd Ljungbom, who passed away at the age of 76, is accompanied by a racing bicycle. Åke Ericsson, who died 88 years young, must have loved chess since his announcement features a chess king, while Göran Wirström likely drove a heavy truck.

The widower of Maj-Britt Loddby chose a silhouette of a dapper couple waltzing. Underneath are a few lines, as is typical: “To my beloved wife, my life companion. A candle has been blown out and the glow has faded.”

Joy Nystrom, 85, tells AFP that when her husband died last year she chose “a small sweet flower, a bluebell, because he loved them. I talked about it with our children and we chose it together. I thought first about a boat with a fisherman in it because he loved the sea.”

“As for me, I would like a notice with nothing. It’s clean and nice,” she said. Her 80-year-old sister Mona meanwhile wants a drawing of three seagulls.

“But not tomorrow,” she adds hastily with a smile.

“Most of the time it is the family who chooses but sometimes the deceased has left instructions for his death announcement,” says Bo Forslund, a spokesman at Fonus, one of Sweden’s biggest funeral homes.

“I think it is rather unique to Sweden but I don’t know why,” he added.

In neighbouring Finland drawings are occasionally used but not nearly as frequently or as varied as in Sweden.

It was Ulla Nerman, the widow of a Swedish writer, who pioneered the practice 30 years ago, according to Christian Richette of Stockholm’s cultural history museum Nordiska Museet, because she refused to have a cross atop her husband’s death announcement.

“She wanted a little flower. At first the newspaper resisted but in the end it agreed,” Richette says.

The announcement was published on December 31, 1977 in Dagens Nyheter.

“It’s primarily an urban phenomenon, in rural regions people are still more traditional with crosses,” Richette says, noting that many of the symbols chosen nowadays still have a religious connotation.

Simon Hansen Elvestad of Norway is also at a loss to explain why Swedes have opted for the eye-opening trend.

His company Adstate has developed software that produces and distributes death notices, handling 30,000 announcements in Sweden and 15,000 in Norway — where the death notices remain sober with a cross.

But he offers a possible explanation.

“In Sweden newspapers editors have agreed to let the funeral homes work with them for the death notices and they have adapted to the wishes of the families,” he says.

A small death notice in Dagens Nyheter costs 34 kronor ($5) per column. On Sundays, it costs an extra krona. A family can also opt to design their own symbol, but at an extra cost of 250 kronor.

The newspaper has rules to follow so that the death pages maintain a certain dignity, says Christer Larsson.

“We don’t accept a cigarette, but we can accept a pipe. We can’t accept a beer glass but a wine glass is fine,” he says, noting that death ads must be black-and-white because they’re more tasteful.

Families’ own drawings are rarely refused.

“Once,” he recalls, “someone sent us a picture of a guy barbecuing and he was not wearing a shirt and barbecuing a hamburger. We couldn’t accept that. It would have been shocking.”

AFP’s Francis Kohn

For members


Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”