Obituaries cross out crosses

Thirty years ago all death announcements in the Swedish papers were adorned with a small black Christian Cross (not counting the occasional Star of David). It represented the culturally acknowledged epitome of the sad news that someone had died. The black cross was foremost seen as a symbol of Death in people’s minds, not as an expression of Christian faith.

Today the obituary pages in Sweden make a very different impression. For some reason people are still bent on dying, so the obituary pages are still filled with the characteristic black-framed rectangular death notices, announcing the death of beloved ones. As before, they still give the name of the deceased, together with the dates of birth and death, and the names of the mourners. Sometimes there is a short poem or a word of wisdom within this framed space of papered grief. But the black crosses are all but gone.

Pets, Ferraris and golf clubs

Instead, Swedish death announcements are now decorated with a bewildering variety of symbols which seem to have very little to do with death (or with religion, for that matter). The obituary symbols in present-day Sweden are e.g. flowers of various types and species, pet animals (from hamsters and rabbits to Alsatians and crocodiles), motor-cars (from VW Beetles to Ferraris), birds (singly and in flocks), excavators (and other pieces of heavy equipment and tools), boats (sailing as well as motorised), fishermen angling in row-boats, golf clubs, footballs (European type), ice-skates, and whatnot. Only a small minority, maybe 10-15 %, of present-day Swedish death announcements still use the black cross as their death symbol.

Symbolic revolution

Trying to explain this symbolic revolution is not an altogether straightforward task. The first thing that comes to mind is that it may be due to increased secularisation. But thirty years ago, when the black crosses were the sole symbols of Death on the obituary pages, Sweden was already nearly as secularised as it is today.

Swedish attitudes toward religion have been somewhat ambiguous, with a discernible faith gap between the State and the general population. The Swedish State always used to be a staunch fighter for the Protestant Lutheran Faith, fighting continental wars in defence of it. The State also enforced compulsory church-going and religious education with stern methods.

Anti-democratic by association

Hence Christianity became by the people identified with the heavy hands of the State, rather than with the mild teachings of Jesus. Democratisation in the 19th and 20th centuries was a struggle against the authoritarian State and, by association, against its administrative agent, the State Church. So increased democratisation automatically lead to increased secularisation, a process that was almost completed about half a century ago.

The very fact that secularisation has been established for such a long time may of course still play a certain part in the “twilight of the Crosses” in Swedish death announcements. Because when people are already used to ignoring religious directions, then ignoring previously taboo symbols and customs feels safer and more unproblematic. But this alone doesn’t seem to be a sufficient explanation of the phenomenon.

A laughing matter

A perhaps better explanation for the Twilight of the Crosses may be the changed attitude toward Death in the modern world. Death today has almost become a laughing matter, in the sense that practically nobody –- except for professionals in the medical and funeral industries –- has ever encountered the death of people first hand, as a private hands-on experience.

Death is an abstraction

People whom you have known and who have died, have done so completely out of sight, in hospitals and similarly sanitised institutions. Death has become an abstraction.

It is still a bit sad perhaps, but this very fact also makes it a bit glamorous. The blood and gore and agony of Death from earlier days, when everybody had first-hand experiences of unpleasant practicalities when your loved ones passed away, has been efficiently tidied away by our modern society.

Spoiling your breakfast appetite

An obituary page studded with small black crosses -– agonising symbols of Death in the old gory sense -– would be an antithesis to our modern light-hearted and pleasantly abstract view of death. It would effectively spoil our breakfast appetite.

So the symbolic birds, golf clubs, Ferraris, excavators and poodles, which have replaced the ugly crosses in the death announcements, have a very modern purpose. They are conveniently doing away with our last reminders of death as a painful reality. And this is as it should, because Modern Death is not a reality, just a silly idea in the back of our minds.

Reference:

Obituary pages of Swedish dailies Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet in 1975, compared to the corresponding obituary pages in 2005.

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