Rituals of Death in the Era of Hidden Death
Western cultures tend to view death as a feared enemy that can be defeated by modern medicine and fancy high-tech machines. The 20th century banished mortality from social life and converted it to a taboo. Death no longer belonged to ordinary people: both the hands-on responsibility and the awareness of the issue were taken away from them. The tendency of avoiding death can be perceived in a change in the place where most people die. They do not die at home anymore, surrounded by their family members, but alone at a sterile hospital. The shift away from dying at home towards dying in a professional medical environment has been termed the ‘invisible or hidden death’ (Werlang & Mendes 2014).
Similar to how modern American engagements with mortality have evolved to a culture of avoidance, Halloween has drifted from death ritual to doorbell ringing (Elliott & McDonald 2018). Today, it is associated with dressing up in costumes, consuming sweets, parading streets and doorsteps of the neighborhood, carving jack-o-lanterns, and telling spooky ghost stories. Yet, originally, Halloween used to remember and honor the dead.
Halloween can be viewed as an annual revival of ancient rituals that re-enact remnants of primeval folk customs that pay homage to departed ancestors as well as to the souls of our loved ones who have passed away. The origin of this Western holiday is found in the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain, although the early Catholic Church Christianized it so that pagan traditions were adopted into a holiday honoring Catholic saints.
Many cultures have celebrated corresponding festivals, stemming from their respective religious contexts. The timing of such festivals coincides with an important period in the natural calendar, one to which all cultures adhered until fairly recently. It is the time of the final harvests of the year, when animals stockpile stores of food for the winter months ahead, the sun sets earlier and rises later, and the trees shed their leaves. With the end of harvesting season, the entire natural world moves into its annual dormant state of hibernation, essentially “dying” until its annual rebirth the following spring (EDSITEment! 2012).
Finland makes no exception to this global pattern. The ancient Finno-Ugric harvest festival called kekri was likewise celebrated on varying dates in the fall. Its history can be traced back to the Iron Age over 2000 years ago. Gradually, the customs of kekri mixed with Christian influences over the centuries and its meaning was interpreted in the light of the church’s teachings. By the early 1800s, it came to coincide with All Saints’ Day in Western Finland and Michaelmas in Eastern Finland. Today, this holiday is known as pyhäinpäivä in Finland. Its name can be translated to All Saints’ Day (Wikipedia – Kekri 2021).
Although commercialized Halloween customs have begun to penetrate Finland in the 21st century, the Finnish variant of All Saints’ Day holds its ground stubbornly. Most Finns prefer to maintain a distinction between kekri or pyhäinpäivä versus imported Anglo-American Halloween, though these days fall within the season of Allhallowtide. Children, teenagers and young people living in cities may be inclined to accept American Halloween, whereas mature adults eschew its shallow commercialism as well as its incompatibility with the national culture. The character of Finnish All Saints’ Day, as understood in the 20th century, differs from American Halloween drastically. Its essence lies in the virtue of respectful non-occurrence on twilight.
Candlelit scene in a cemetery on All Saints’ Day[i]; Source: Pixabay | Hermann Kollinger | https://pixabay.com/fi/photos/kirkko-hautausmaa-pyh%C3%A4inp%C3%A4iv%C3%A4-5211440/
[i] This photo is not from Finland although its overall atmosphere resembles Finnish feeling.
All Saints’ Day in Finland
The most visible tradition on All Saints’ Day is to visit cemeteries and light candles on family graves in order to honor and remember our loved ones who are resting there. The spectacle of thousands of burning candles creates a magnificent scene especially after sunset, which occurs quite early on November 1, around 4:20 pm in Helsinki, South Finland, and 3:40 pm in Rovaniemi, Lapland (Artic Circle). The flickering “ocean” of graveside candles in a wooded cemetery, veiled by pitch-black darkness, is not just a visually aesthetic but also spiritually uplifting experience. Flames will burn on the graves until the candles run out as a way to keep alive the memory of those who are no longer among us.
In addition to lanterns, people bring heathers and spruce twigs to graves since the weather is too cold for flowers. Lichen wreaths are an increasingly popular alternative to the former. Cemeteries also offer memorial features where people can light candles for those buried elsewhere.
It became a common practice to leave lights on the tombs of the fallen soldiers after the Second World War. The idea is to honor those who died in fighting for Finland’s independence: first to gain and secure statehood in 1917-18, and then to defend and preserve it in 1939-44. Putting candles on military graves belongs to the traditions of Independence Day (Dec. 6) and Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), as well.
Though a cemetery may be crowded on All Saint’s Day, the atmosphere is nevertheless silent, tranquil and solemn as people quietly reflect on the serene candlelit scene. Making a noise, talking or laughing loud, and running around is always disapproved of as inappropriate behavior in a Finnish graveyard, but too strong outbursts of emotion are also to be avoided. Restrained rationality and subdued grief prevail over charismatic, mystic, occultic or paranormal beliefs. Remembering the deceased does not mean celebrating together with them or trying to contact their spirits. To cite an example, one does not give food to the spirits of departed ancestors. Nor does one sit on graves or kiss tombstones.
Placing candles on the graves of deceased relatives is a deep-rooted custom held even by non-churchgoers who may have left their congregation. Finland is a secularized country where the majority of the population is quite non-religious even though two thirds of the Finns still belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is the national church of Finland. On All Saint’s Day, the Lutheran parishes hold special services to remember parishioners who passed away during the previous year. However, the attendance of those services does not have the same numbers of visitors as the graveyards.
Heathers and spruce twigs on a grave: decoration for All Saint’s Day; Source: Marja Nissinen
“Kekri” Celebration, Culmination of the Harvest Season
As a counter-reaction to Halloween’s invasion, some communities have revived age-old kekri traditions which were once related to the harvest celebrations in country villages. Hence, eating and drinking of copious amounts of food and alcohol characterized kekri in the past. The tables were full of freshly cooked food from the harvested crops and slaughtered animals. Farmers thought that the more food they offered, the better the crop would be next year (Talonpoikaiskulttuurisäätiö 2021).
Kekripukki[i] was an essential figure at kekri feasts. Kekripukki was usually a young man who was dressed up in a fur that was turned upside down, wearing a birchbark mask and goat’s horns. Kekripukki, along with other similar looking creatures, went from house to house singing, dancing and performing dirty plays and jokes for free drinks. Their team was accompanied by a group of young women called kekrittäret. The latter were dressed up in white sheets and their faces were covered with white paint. Kekri trolls were little children dressed up as ghost/spirit/demons. These kids with smudged faces also visited houses, dancing and performing little plays.
Kekripukki; Source: https://raumantyonhakijat.com/blogi/mika-on-halloween-ja-miksi-sita-juhlitaan/
Kekri was the time to honor ancestors. The head of the family invited the spirits by pouring beer on his driveway. The scent of the beer woke up the ancestors and led them into the house. Dinner was served for them, too. It was believed that they would enjoy their meal while the family went to the sauna. The sauna was warmed up for the whole night so that the ancestors could stay there until dawn. Soap, clean towels and bath whisks had been reserved for them. (Niskanen 2021.)
Growing ethnographic interest in folklore has contributed to a modest resurgence of kekri customs in some provincial parts of the country. In a small North Finnish town, for instance, the burning of a giant straw goat has developed into an annual event (Wikipedia 2021).
Despite these revival attempts, the phenomenon appears marginal nowadays. The pagan superstition embedded in many kekri traditions makes it hard to sell the concept to an earthly, level-headed Lutheran/agnostic/atheist in postindustrial Finland. Nor does the farming cycle shape the lives of urban dwellers to the same extent as in agricultural an society.
What’s Left Beyond Rites?
The Finnish version of All Saints’ Day is a combination of distanced symbolism and inherited habits. What will remain left if all its religious, spiritual and cultural roots decay and are wiped away? Does the hollow candle ritual in graveyards make sense without substance? What is the point?
Senior citizens prove to their fellow men that they are decent people who plant taller and more expensive heathers in their family grave than those bought by a neighbor. Youngsters throw a wild costume party, and small kids beg for candies or money from strangers. It may be time for soul-searching!
Glass Candles, Source: Pixabay | Goszka | https://pixabay.com/fi/photos/kynttil%c3%a4-kuollut-kaikki-pyh%c3%a4t-hauta-1785707/
EDSITEment (2012). Origins of Halloween and the Day of the Dead. National Endowment for the Humanities, February 16, 2012. | https://edsitement.neh.gov/closer-readings/origins-halloween-and-day-dead
Elliott, Vittoria & McDonald, Kevin (2018). How death disappeared from Halloween. Washington Post, October 31, 2018. | https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2018/10/31/how-death-disappeared-halloween/
Niskanen, Niina (2021). Kekri, Finnish Day of the Dead. Blog. | https://www.fairychamber.com/blog/kekri-finnish-day-of-the-dead
Talonpoikaiskulttuurisäätiö (2021). Kekrin vietto. Blog. | https://wiki.aineetonkulttuuriperinto.fi/wiki/Kekrin_vietto
Werlang, Rosangela & Mendes, Jussara Maria Rosa (2014). Death over time: brief notes about death and dying in the West. Social Psychology / Estud. psicol. (Campinas) 31(3), September 2014. | https://doi.org/10.1590/0103-166X2014000300012
Wikipedia (2021). Kekri. | https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kekri_(festival)