Rites of Passage in Sweden

Rites of Passage
Ingela Martenius
M.Phil. (ethnology)
For Steven,
who stands on guard
Cover illustrations:
The Swedish Flag; all Nordic countries have flags with a cross – the oldest flag is the Danish one (Dannebrogen) and all
the rest are copies. Blue and yellow are colours that have been associated with Sweden since mediaeval times.
The Three Crowns; apart from the flag, this symbol is what most Swedes associate with Sweden. The original Royal
palace in Stockholm (burnt down in the late 17 century) was called Tre Kronor, originally a mediaeval symbol.
The church is the Allerum parish church. The oldest parts of the church are mediaeval but very little remains after the
extensive re-buildings in the 1760’s and the 1830’s. Allerum is located on the northwest coast of Sweden’s southernmost
province, Skåne, just north of Helsingborg. Photo Ingela Martenius.
BIRTH, BAPTISM AND CHURCHING ........................................... 1
The Heathen Child ........................................................................................................... 1
Churching (kyrktagning).................................................................................................. 1
Godparents ....................................................................................................................... 2
Swaddling and Clothes..................................................................................................... 3
CONFIRMATION AND COMING OF AGE ..................................... 4
From Child to Adult......................................................................................................... 4
Requisite Knowledge........................................................................................................ 4
Confirmation and First Communion.............................................................................. 4
Confirmation Gifts ........................................................................................................... 5
Adult Life .......................................................................................................................... 5
Clothes............................................................................................................................... 5
BETROTHAL, BANNS AND WEDDING ........................................ 7
Choosing a Spouse............................................................................................................ 7
Betrothal (trolovning)....................................................................................................... 7
Banns (lysning) – Crutch Pomp (kryckeståt) or Reception (lysningsmottagning)........ 8
The Wedding – Ceremony and Celebration .................................................................. 8
The Next Day .................................................................................................................... 9
Divorce .............................................................................................................................. 9
Clothes............................................................................................................................. 10
DEATH AND BURIAL .................................................................. 11
Causes of Death .............................................................................................................. 11
Memento Mori – Think of Death .................................................................................. 12
The Death........................................................................................................................ 12
The Funeral .................................................................................................................... 13
Funeral Repast (gravöl) ................................................................................................. 14
Clothes............................................................................................................................. 14
SOURCES .................................................................................... 15
Allt fick sin vigning i kyrkans famn:
Brudgummens löfte till bruden,
Hemmet, de nyföddas kristna namn,
Kämparnas färd till den sista hamn,
Fanan och konungaskruden.
J.A. Eklund
Hymn 169 (verse 2), written by the Bishop of
Karlstad, Johan Alfred Eklund (1863-1945),
from the 1937 edition of the official Book of
Hymns of the Swedish Church; the hymn was
excluded in the 1986 edition as being “too
All was consecrated in the arms of the church:
The bridegroom’s promise to the bride
The home, the newborns’ Christian names
The fighters’ voyage to their last harbour
The flag and the kingly robes
Birth, Baptism and
Our present notions about what
occasions in life are worthy of special
attention may differ a little from our
ancestors’ – but that the beginning of a
new life should be celebrated is
something that we probably all can agree
on. Today baptism has lost some of its
status, even though about 70 % of all
children born in Sweden are in fact still
baptised within the Church of Sweden.
In the old days baptism was perhaps the
most important ceremony in your entire
life since it meant that you were made
part of the Christian congregation and
were thus protected from the many
dangers our ancestors were absolutely
convinced threatened the newborn, not
yet christened child, while we today
often tend to see the baptism as more of
a naming ceremony.
The Heathen Child
Today children in Sweden are often
baptised when they are several months
old, but in the old days baptism was
something that had to be performed as
quickly as was humanly possible. Until
1864 the law required a child to be
baptised within eight days, but most
children were baptised earlier. If it could
be arranged the child was baptised the
very day it was born, but most
protection of the child different
things were put in the cradle: it
could be a small pouch of spices
(e.g. caraway), a steel knife or a
silver coin.
For a very long time baptisms
were carried out only in church,
but in the end it became
fashionable to have children
baptised at home. In old
churches it can also be observed
that the baptismal font is not
placed by the altar but at the
entrance or even in the vestry.
The reason was that the child
was considered heathen before it
was baptised, and a heathen
should not be allowed into the
church or at least as short a
distance as possible.
If the child was very weak, or
if the weather made it impossible
to bring the child to church, an
emergency (private) baptism
A baptism in Österåker (county of Södermanland) in
(nöddop) had to be performed.
the days of national dress. The dress was solemn –
Every baptised member of the
and the outer garments were kept on!
Church of Sweden could, and
commonly the baptism took place when still can, perform an emergency baptism.
the child was two or three days old. A The baptism is quite valid, and needs
child that was not christened was a only to be confirmed through a blessing,
danger both to itself and to others; it was but the rural population generally did not
e.g. believed that trolls were on the look- think that it “took” properly if it was not
out for pretty little human babies – they done by a clergyman – so the vicar
were thought capable of exchanging their simply had to repeat the baptism.
own ugly, stupid and wayward brat for Accordingly “double” baptismal dates
the cute little child. Changeling and as if can sometimes be observed in the church
changed were not said jokingly or records. In some parishes it was so
figuratively in those days! For the common that the children could not be
baptised during the winter that you can
tell which the first Sunday with clement
weather was: then upwards of twenty
children were baptised – for the second
time – on the same Sunday. It is easy to
imagine the level of noise in that church!
Churching (kyrktagning)
Two typical birth / baptismal spoons. They are a perfect size for feeding babies and later in life
they are just as perfect for your breakfast marmalade.
Photo Ingela Martenius
One aspect we have difficulty
comprehending today is that the mother
was not present at her child’s baptism.
After giving birth the woman had to stay
indoors – preferably in the room where
she had been delivered – until she was
churched (kyrktagen). All her chores
were done by neighbouring women; this
was the only time in her life a woman
could rest properly! Sometimes the
women held a feast for the newly
delivered mother, a “birthing beer”
(barnsängsöl), with extra nourishing
food made from fresh milk, or even
cream, and eggs.
A mother not yet churched was
according to popular belief thought
”unclean” and on par with a heathen, and
both she and the farm with all who lived
there, both human and animal, were in
danger. Since churching originated
within the Jewish faith and there was
regarded as a purification – and the
Virgin Mary was received and purified at
the Temple 40 days after giving birth to
Christ (celebrated as Candlemas
(Kyndelsmäss) on Feb. 2nd) – less
educated people (which meant at least
90% of the Swedish population)
continued to regard churching as a
purifying rite while the Swedish
Lutheran Church, at least officially,
emphasised that the ceremony was one
of joy and gratitude that the newly
delivered mother could return to the
congregation healthy and with regained
strength. Churching was supposed to
take place 40 days after the delivery – to
conform to the precedent set by the
Virgin Mary – but in practice it early on
often took place on the fourth Sunday
(i.e. 22-27 days) after the delivery. In
1866 churching was also officially
moved to four weeks after the birth.
Churching was originally performed at
the church door. This was however
changed during Protestant times, among
other things because it was not thought
to be good for the newly delivered
mother to stand around outside if it was
cold, windy or wet (which it so often is
in Sweden). Having the churching
outside the church would of course also
have strengthened the superstitious idea
Above: Baptism in an upper
middle class setting in the mid
1950’s. The mother wears a
“nice” dress, but in a dark
Right: A typical baptism from
rural Skåne; the child in a red,
decorated “bag”. From the
dress show at Ystad, 2005.
Photos Ingela Martenius
the Lutheran church wished to get rid
off, namely that it was a purification rite.
The churching ritual was very simple:
before the regular church service began,
the woman about to be churched kneeled
before the altar and the vicar read a short
prayer expressing thankfulness. The
woman rose and the vicar shook her
hand, at the same time saying “The Lord
guide you in His truth and fear, now and
unto eternity. Amen.” The woman then
returned to her pew.
Unmarried mothers were originally not
churched but had to publicly confess and
apologise for their transgression in front
of the entire congregation, but later the
confession was made in private before
the vicar. A modified form of churching
then took place: a slightly different
prayer was said, and the vicar did not
shake hands with the unwed mother.
Usually she was also made to kneel on
the bare floor - or at least on an
uncovered stool - while the married
woman kneeled on a very plush and
finely decorated stool.
Since baptism from 1864 was
permitted to take place within six weeks
of the birth and churching was officially
moved to within four weeks of the birth
in 1866, this meant that churching and
baptism could take place at the same
time – which also very quickly became
the norm.
In Sweden churching was still in the
Book of Prayers until 1986 (with the
name changed to “a mother’s
performed after World War II - and then
mainly on request from the mother. The
province preserving churching the
longest was of course Bohuslän (the
province on the coast just north of
Göteborg), still the most conservative
province when it comes to church
The most important persons at a
baptism – except for the child – were
instead the godparents. They were
usually four: a married and an unmarried
man, a married and an unmarried
woman. In our church records they were
most often called testes, i.e. ”witnesses”
in Latin, and are not seldom more
carefully inscribed than the parents! It
was the business of the entire extended
family to provide as influential
godparents as possible for the newborn
child and many genealogists are today
amazed that “common crofter kids”
could have e.g. the richest farmer in the
parish as a godfather. Godparents did not
– as many believe today – have any sort
of obligation to care for the child, if the
parents were unable to do so, but they
had a moral duty to further the child’s
interest, e.g. by giving recommendations
when it later applied for a position or to
be accepted by a guild or a school, and
also to give gifts. A smart way of
acquiring nice godparents was to ask the
wife of one of the most important
parishioners to carry the baby; this was a
very great honour, irrespective of the
woman’s and the child’s social positions,
and such a request could hardly be
turned down. Since the mother was not
present, the primary godmother in a very
real sense represented the mother.
Godparents – and the entire extended
family – were expected to give valuable
christening gifts. The silver spoon, often
engraved, still today given in connection
with birth or baptism is a remnant of the
old rural society where all the money
that could be saved was quickly invested
in silver, preferably a spoon, which had
the double advantage of being of lasting
value and also could be shown to
neighbours, family and friends. Today
such a gift of a silver spoon would
correspond to e.g. opening a savings
account in the child’s name – but it is
difficult to abandon old traditions
completely, so most of us continue to
give a baptismal spoon while we at the
same time make a deposit in that savings
account! The christening gifts were
given at the feast held in connection with
the baptism, the “child beer” (barnsöl).
Swaddling and Clothes
Most people are aware that children
used to be swaddled. Two different
swaddling techniques were used: crossswaddling, which was done rather
loosely with a narrow swaddling-band so
that the child could not kick off its
clothes, and circular swaddling, which
was done tightly with a broad band so
that the child’s limb would become
straight. The child was usually nursed
only twice in 24 hours, morning and
evening, and spent the rest of the time
swaddled in its own dirt! From the 17th
century some doctors, philosophers and
pedagogues (e.g. John Locke [1632-
1704], Jean-Jacques Rousseau [1712- colours with pink for girls and (light)
78]) did speak out against swaddling, blue for boys started only quite late in
saying that children should be able to the latter half of the 19th century and was
move freely. There were however some purely a city fashion.
advantages to swaddling: since the child
For its baptism the child was dressed
could not move it could easily be minded as finely as could be achieved. Special
by a gouty old granny or a sibling – or baptismal gowns were common also
even be left alone; the child was also among the rural population. In e.g.
kept warm in the draughty cottages of Hälsingland and Skåne are mentioned in
the time and could not kick off its particular red baptismal gowns, in silk
blankets etc. Until it was three or four with embroideries and decorated with
months old the child was completely silk ribbons, pearls and lace. The
swaddled from head to toe, but after that baptismal gown was most often in the
“only” from the breast down. From about shape of a “bag”, which was necessary if
the age of 10 months – when the child the child was completely swaddled. The
would begin to learn to walk – there was baptismal dresses common today have
no swaddling during the daytime. sleeves which demanded that the child
Swaddling was abandoned first by the was swaddled no higher than the chest;
English aristocracy (already at the such baptismal dresses – in white –
beginning of the 18th century) and from became the fashion from the end of the
there the new custom spread both 18th century and became the general
geographically and socially. From the norm during the 19th century. Particularly
beginning of the 20th century babies were fancy caps, e.g. in silk, were worn before
swaddled hardly anywhere in Sweden, and after the baptismal act.
but there is plenty of
evidence that it was still
done in Eastern Europe until
well into the 1960’s and
1970’s! Except for the
swaddling bands – which for
long remained, transformed
into a belly band – baby
clothing has not changed all
that much, other than that
babies today seldom wear a
cap indoors. In the old days
you could tell from the very
first day if it was a boy or a
girl from the cut of the
baby’s cap: the girl’s cap
was cut with two sidepieces
and a central piece from
forehead to neck while the
boy’s cap was made from
“wedges” – both were
however tied under the chin.
Among the rural population
no distinction was made as
to the colours worn by boys
and girls, and there was no
concept of dressing children
in colours different from
those used by adults. The Hanna’s baptism – in national dress from the mid 1970’s.
Photo Ulla Centergran
tradition of pale pastel
Using Your Swedish National Dress for a Baptism Today
If there are no specific local instructions you should dress as if for a grand occasion;
however not quite as fancy and festive as for a wedding – a baptism is somewhat
more “serious”. Presumably no one would today even for a moment consider
swaddling a baby even temporarily, but a “bag” does work also without swaddling.
However, a white baptismal gown was used also when people dressed in national
dresses “for real”, and works well. A somewhat more old-fashioned style is achieved
if a cap, particularly one cut after the old patterns, is used with the baptismal dress.
Confirmation and
Coming of Age
In most societies the transition from
childhood to adulthood is celebrated with
some sort of ceremony and festivity,
often preceded by or consisting of some
form of training and/or test. Today this
role has been taken by leaving high
school with attendant celebrations, but in
the old agrarian society the confirmation
was considered as the rite of passage for
From Child to Adult
The confirmation was of course really
a church rite, a confirmation of the
baptism. Since the Swedish church – like
the Catholic Church and the majority of
Protestant churches – practices child
baptism it is important that the baptism is
confirmed when the child is old enough
Confirmation can therefore not take
place until the child is “adult” which we
in Sweden traditionally think occurs at
the age of 15. Before modern readers
start protesting you should consider the
fact that we today generally think that
coming of age is at 18 – but it is in actual
fact a process that starts at just precisely
15 and is not concluded until 10 years
later. At 15 you are legally responsible
for any criminal acts committed, you are
allowed to drive a moped, have sex and
watch NC-17-rated movies. All of it
remains of “the old Sweden”!
So confirmation took place earliest at
the age of 15, but it could also be
postponed if the parish vicar thought that
the confirmand-to-be was not mature
enough or did not have the requisite
knowledge. In some parishes there were
special ledgers listing the year’s
confirmands, and in case of missing birth
records these ledgers may be used to
indicate at least a probable year of birth
since it is certain that the confirmand
always was at least 15 years old at
confirmation. Before confirmation the
child was not counted as a person in
his/her own right, but was always
referred to in relation to its father; e.g. a
death record would read “farmer Nils
Andersson of Norgården’s son Peter, 13
years old” (“åbon Nils Anderssons i
Norgården son Peter, 13 år”).
Requisite Knowledge
Before 1986 the Swedish church
required you to be confirmed to be
allowed to participate in Holy
Communion. The Church Law of 1686
demanded that a parishioner before
attending his/her first communion was
examined as to knowledge of
Christianity (as interpreted by the state
church of course), which led to public
hearings. During the latter part of the 18th
century this grew into a special church
service which was given a firm ritual in
the church manual of 1811; however,
only in the 1917 manual is the ritual
termed “confirmation”.
Confirmation started with “reading for
the vicar” (”läsa för prästen”). Today
many misinterpret this as meaning that
this was when the rural population learnt
to read. In fact the ability to read from a
book was, together with a basic
prerequisite for being allowed to attend
the confirmation lessons.
All children learnt to read sometime
between the age of seven and ten. In
some parishes the sacristan (klockaren)
taught the children, sometimes reading
was taught at home and in some parishes
schoolmaster. These schoolmasters were
not seldom discharged soldiers, since
their training included a thorough
instruction in the arts of writing and
arithmetic (soldiers were supposed to be
able to read already). Sometimes it
would happen that a farmer’s son who
had been given the chance of studying
for the clergy did not quite make it – or
he ran out of money – and instead ended
up a schoolmaster. Proper schools for the
schoolhouses, were established from the
middle of the 18th century all over
Sweden. The Basic School Reform
(Folkskolereformen) of 1842 did not
bring about any significant changes; it
must also be emphasized that while the
new law required the parishes to arrange
schools it did not require the children to
attend them. But already before 1842
there were some 1800 schools in about
half of Sweden’s 2300 parishes; ten
years later nothing much had changed.
The great change was instead that in the
new basic school (folkskolan) the
children also had compulsory lessons in
So what did the confirmation lessons
comprise? Well, there was reading of
various texts in the Bible, but above all
learning by heart Luther’s Small
Commandments, the Confession and the
Lord’s Prayer – including the difficult
explanations. You were however not
expected to know all of the explanations
by heart: in the church records there are
sometimes notes that someone knows
“all of the explanation” (”kan hela
Svebilii förklaring utantill”), which was
so remarkable that it had to be recorded.
Confirmation and First
Confirmation at Ljung’s church (county of Bohuslän) concludes a confirmation camp, summer of
1970. All the girls wear white, “grown-up” dresses in the latest (very short) fashion; the boys wear
ties but no jackets due to the unusually warm summer.
Photo Ingela Martenius
The confirmation lessons ended with
the much-feared examination in church,
before the entire congregation. This
examination was thus really the first
household examination, because once
you were confirmed you were examined
together with all the (confirmed) people
living at your farm once a year by the
Confirmation at Rättvik’s church (Dalarna province) in 1994. In several parishes
around Lake Siljan the tradition remained that girls should wear national dress to
their confirmation while the boys started wearing “civilian” suits at the end of the
19 century. In connection with the revival of the national dress in the 1970’s boys
began wearing national dress again.
Photo Maria Björkroth
vicar, on exactly the same subjects as at
Today in Sweden we think of
confirmation as an examination – which
today often takes the form of a seminar –
immediately followed by communion.
However, in the old days the
examination, often referred to as
“standing on [sic] the aisle” (“stå på
answered the questions lined up in the
aisle, took place on the Saturday and the
communion followed the next day, the
SwedishAmericans belonging to the American
Lutheran Church they still adhere to this
old tradition.
Confirmation Gifts
It is often rumoured that today many
confirmands are confirmed only for the
presents. These presents are also a
confirmation meant stepping into the
adult world. The confirmands would
often receive quite expensive gifts that
completed the change in clothing
marking their new status: for the girls it
could be a pin or a clasp in silver or
perhaps a silk scarf, for the boys cufflinks in silver or (from the middle of the
19th century) perhaps even a watch!
The gifts were of course mainly from
the parents, or perhaps an older sibling –
but not least the godparents were A typical confirmand from Bohuslän (Kville) about 1910.
now expected to make a The girl is dressed completely in black, but is evidently
contribution. There are letters still using a white shift under her dress since it shows at
and other records preserved her throat and wrists. She is also holding her nice new –
black – gloves in her right hand.
where godparents complain that Photo Anna-Carin Betzén
they now live in “abject poverty”
from giving the expensive gifts expected soon as they were confirmed. But if the
parents had the least opportunity of
from one of higher social status.
keeping them at home for another year or
two, they did so. Many places the
Adult Life
after majority did not leave home until they
confirmation? Well, for a majority were 17-19 years old, which is to say
nothing much changed for a couple of much the same age as when you quit
years. Indeed they were responsible for high school today.
their crimes, could hold a job, and poll
tax had to be paid, but the notion we
have today that this meant that most of
the rural youths had to leave home to
fend for themselves is a fact that has to
be taken with a – large – pinch of salt.
Some children did have to leave their
poverty-stricken homes before they were
15; they worked for food and lodging
and, if they were lucky enough to have a
kind-hearted mistress, some second-hand
clothing. In church records they are
entered as “gossen” (the boy) or
“flickan” (the girl). When the 15-yearolds had been confirmed they were free
to go to work “for real” (and be noted as
“dräng” [male farmhand] or “piga”
[female farmhand]) and they had to be
given wages according to law. Some 15year-olds did indeed go into service as
The transition to adult status was
marked by clothes. Before they were
confirmed children wore children’s
clothing. From when they could walk
until they were about 5 – 7 years this
meant a smock-frock (kolt), a sort of
”dress” that went down to the middle of
the calf, differently cut for boys and girls
and often made from yellow (simplest
colour to dye) wool or linsey-woolsey
and worn over a linen shift/shirt. On top
of the smock-frock an apron was worn, a
bib apron for boys and a waist apron for
girls. The children were of course
wearing a cap at all times: made from
“wedges” for boys and made from two
sidepieces and a central piece from
forehead to neck for girls.
Around the age of 5 – 7 years, varying
from parish to parish, the children were
dressed in simpler versions of adult
clothing. It was only now they managed
to dress themselves, a requirement for
the “upgrade” – there was no time to
dress two or three children in every
family! ”No obvious tears or holes, and
(passably) clean” was the sum of
ambition for the children’s clothes until
they were confirmed; very little time or
effort was spent on clothes the children
would wear out or grow out of. It was
common practice to turn worn-out adult
clothing into children’s clothes as well as
could be managed.
Confirmation meant that you now had
the right to wear fully adult clothing.
What this entailed exactly varied, but
there were some general rules. So e.g.
girls living in areas where adult women
used bindmössa (which is to say not in
e.g. Skåne) always had their first
bindmössa (a silk cap or bonnet, usually
embroidered) at their confirmation. It is
unfortunately nowadays a common
misconception that unmarried females
did not wear bindmössa – indeed they
did. Some parishes had very strict rules,
but generally speaking light colours were
worn by young girls (light blue was e.g.
popular for confirmands) and darker
colours, even black, were used by older,
married women.
A typical bindmössa (Bohuslän).
Photo Ingela Martenius
In the towns children also wore
smock-frocks during their first years.
Before confirmation the boys then wore
short trousers (above the knee) and the
girls’ skirts reached just below the knee.
Afterwards the boys wore long trousers
and the girls’ skirts became floor-length
and they were allowed to put their hair
up. In urban middle class society there
was however a tendency to try to
preserve girls as “innocent children” for
as long as possible, and so it was not
unusual that girls, particularly if they still
attended school, wore shorter skirts for
everyday use with their hair put up as
First communion 1967 in Göteborg. The Catholic Church has never required any special
knowledge to be able to participate in Holy Communion. The first communion is thus celebrated
with great festivity already at age 8, without confirmation. The girls used to be dressed up like
little brides!
Photo Isabelle Falsen
simply as possible, e.g. by just winding
the “little girl plaits” around the head.
At first everyone in the rural
population was of course confirmed in
national dress – that was after all the
clothes available, and they were worn
with pride since they showed that you
were no longer a child. The clothes were
proper clothes for attending church, but
not the most expensive ones. Indeed, this
was the start of collecting clothes:
farmhands, both male and female, were
partly paid in fabrics and other articles of
clothing, and the cash part of their wages
could be used for buying the more
luxurious items, like e.g. silk scarves.
When the national dresses started
disappearing towards the middle of the
19th century they were at confirmation
replaced by heavy woollen suits with
long trousers for the boys and
fashionable dresses for the girls (though
of course very modest versions, with
long sleeves and made high to the neck).
Since urban middle-class adult women
wore black – or at least dark – clothing
for church, the confirmands’ dresses
were in the beginning black. However,
towards the end of the 19th century urban
middle-class society did not regard black
as a suitable colour for young girls – it
made them too grown-up – so, in the
cities (not in Göteborg though!) they
started to dress girls in white for
confirmation. This practice spread to
smaller market towns and in the end also
to rural parishes. The change from black
consequences: so e.g. two dresses could
be necessary – one in white for the actual
confirmation and one in black for the
communion the next day. The most
conservative province proved not
unexpectedly to be Bohuslän; the
Schartauan clergy and/or congregations
made sure that the girls in some parishes
wore black well into the 1950’s!
However, the vicar in one parish in
Bohuslän thought the parish girls should
wear black, but when he privately
tutored confirmands who had their
lessons during the summer and lived at
the vicarage these girls were allowed to
be confirmed in white – the colour was
thus partly also a question of social class.
Using Your Swedish National Dress for a Confirmation Today
The confirmand should of course be dressed like the other confirmands. It is of
course very nice if they all wish to wear national dress! If there are no specific local
customs the confirmands should dress in completely adult versions, suitable for
attending a church service. Where a ”bindmössa” is part of the dress the girls must
wear them, preferably – if there are no specific traditions to the contrary – in a light
colour; light blue used to be a very popular colour for a confirmand’s bonnet.
Family, relatives and friends dress as for a normal church service, perhaps with a
particularly nice scarf or a brand-new shirt, but not as for a major holiday.
Just like today marriage did not begin
with a wedding. First you had to decide
whom to marry. In all classes of society
it was originally rather self-evident that
you did what your family – above all
your parents – decided and married the
one they had selected. Marriage was not
romance, it was the start-up of a family
business. Was there no way you could
decide for yourself? Oh yes, in quite a
number of cases the parties could
choose, as long as they kept to “suitable”
candidates: none of the estates approved
of marriages where there was too great a
difference between the parties. A rich
girl, whether she was of the nobility or
from a farming family, should marry a
man that was well off – unless the man
could offer something else; it was not
uncommon for a rich merchant’s
daughter to climb the social ladder by
marrying a poor nobleman. Also other
circumstances could prove decisive: a
young man would sometimes have to
start his career by “preserving the
widow” (konservera änkan) – clergymen
who wanted a good living married their
predecessor’s widow, and a journeyman
craftsman who wanted to take over his
deceased master’s position was in a
similar situation.
Mostly you married someone of
roughly your own age, but among the
clergy and the more affluent city families
it was not unusual for a man to have to
wait until he was 35 or 40 years old
before he had an income that would
enable him to support a wife in a
“proper” manner. And of course he then
chose a pretty young girl of 18 or 20.
People in comfortable circumstances of
all social classes generally married when
they were about 20-22 years – but most
people had to wait much longer. Among
farmers the general practice was that you
went into service when you were around
18, and then remained in service
upwards of ten years before you had
made enough to have a nest egg to start
married life on.
In all classes of society people became
acquainted at various social events, but
among the farmers this first acquaintance
could be followed by something that
Not all churches possessed crowns, but then
the bridal dresser often had one like this, in
less precious materials. The crown was really
just a frame that was dressed and decorated
to such a degree that it was hardly visible.
Photo Isabelle Falsen
This is how the crown could appear when
properly decorated. The flowers must be of
paper since this was “finer” than real flowers.
The small corkscrew locks also belonged to
the decorations, i.e. they were not the bride’s
own hair! Photo Ingela Martenius
Betrothal, Banns
and Wedding
The most important day in a woman’s
life used to be her wedding day. An
unmarried woman had no status and a
married woman was most careful to
acquire all the attributes – e.g. a special
sort of headgear – she was entitled to.
But the wedding itself was the occasion
when a woman was not only allowed to
but expected to outshine everybody else,
she was truly ”queen for a day”.
Choosing a Spouse
certainly did not occur in the other
estates: a “night proposal” (nattfrieri).
The “night proposals” did not occur quite
everywhere, but have not been
uncommon in most parts of Sweden.
“Night proposals” meant that gangs of
young men would at night go from
village to village and also to the remote
pastures (fäbodvallarna) to see “their”
girls. When they arrived at the right
place a fight could break out if it was a
popular girl many boys were after. The
victor climbed in through the window to
the girl and laid down (fully dressed) on
top of the counterpane – the girl was
under the counterpane, usually dressed
not only in her chemise but also in an
extra blouse and at least one petticoat or
skirt. The boys watched each other and
the visit was deemed a success if the girl
didn’t turn her back on her visitor.
conceived under these circumstances, but
the clergy (perhaps not so surprisingly)
disliked this tradition.
After a period of acquaintance – and
possibly some “night proposals” – it was
time to talk about a betrothal. An
intermediary (here, böneman) was sent
by the man to the woman’s family, and
eventually an agreement that everybody
could accept was reached.
Betrothal (trolovning)
Up until 1734 the betrothal was the
most important stage of the wedding
process; this was when a contract was
entered upon between the families – and
from this day the couple was regarded as
husband and wife and could share a bed.
The ceremony in church was only a
blessing with no legal consequences
(compare with e.g. France or Germany
today where the civil ceremony is the
legally binding one and the church
wedding a private blessing). But since
Ansgar set foot in Birka in the 9th century
the church had fought to have the church
wedding recognized as the only valid
form – and with the law of 1734 the
church finally had its way. The farmers’
estate made voluble protests; the farmers
did not at all wish for church weddings –
they were afraid that this would mean
that their children to a greater degree
wanted to decide for themselves whom
to marry – and so, in a typical Swedish
compromise, the legal consequences of a
betrothal were not rescinded: a child
conceived and born while the parents
were betrothed was regarded as
In the towns there were not so much
(trolovningsbarn), and if you wanted to man intended to marry; the purpose of
break off a betrothal it was the same the banns was to give people the fun and games, instead there were quite
opportunity to raise any impediment formal receptions (”banns receptions”,
thing as a divorce.
lysningsmottagning) at the home
For the betrothal – and
of the bride the two first
later the wedding – to be
Sundays. At these receptions tea
valid the parties had to have
and sandwiches as well as
reached the correct age:
sherry and cake were offered.
according to the law of 1734
Both at the “crutch pomp”
it was 21 for men and 15 for
and the reception the visitors
women; women’s marriage
gave presents
age was in 1892 raised to 17
displayed for all to admire.
and in 1916 to 18 (the men’s
Usually this was also an
marriage age was lowered to
opportunity for inspecting that
18 in 1969). Furthermore
part of the bride’s trousseau that
the woman had to have her
consisted of table cloths, bed
sheets, tapestries and other
(giftoman – usually her
things for the future home;
sometimes also more personal
items like furs and silk clothing.
women over 25 could from
1858 petition the court to
attain majority and in 1863
The Wedding – Ceremony
these women automatically
and Celebration
came of age – but until 1872
In Sweden a church wedding
(1882 for women of the
was for long the only possible
nobility!) they still had to
way of marrying. By the end of
the 18th century Jews were
guardian’s permission to
permitted to settle in Sweden
marry. As an aside can be
and they were given their own
noted that married women A bridal couple from Skåne under a bridal canopy. In Skåne the bride right to marry (in a synagogue).
were minors until 1921 seldom wore a crown since this had not been the custom in Denmark; In the middle of the 19th century
(even if they were over 25 the bride instead wore a special bonnet (piglock) with plenty of ribbons a Jewish man and a woman
(la). Photo Isabelle Falsen
belonging to the Church of
always against the marriage – objecting at the Sweden wished to marry; the only
automatically attained majority and wedding ceremony itself was too late.
possible solution was to introduce a form
needed no marriage guardian.
The banns were read from the lectern, of civil marriage, which however was
A betrothal (trolovning) must be and the saying was that “the names fell limited to cases where the parties had
engagement down from the lectern”. And if you fall different faiths. Only in 1908 did a civil
(förlovning). A betrothal was public, down from such a high place, well, then marriage
before witnesses, and was a confirmation you break your legs. And if you break alternative for anyone who wished for it.
of the validity of the contract entered your legs you need crutches. And so
A marriage could of course take place
upon by the families. An engagement “crutch pomp” (kryckeståt, also called anytime (except during Lent), but among
was private, only between the parties kryckegänge or björkdrage) was farmers it was common to marry
legal celebrated.
between Christmas and the New Year;
One of the Sundays the banns were Boxing Day was e.g. one of the most
ceremony began to be generally accepted read (which one varied from place to popular days. The reason was
as the only valid way to marry, the terms place) a tree – most commonly a birch or economical and practical: Christmas was
were mixed up and the differences a fir tree (i.e. a “cheap”, prolific tree) – the most festive of all holidays, with
between betrothal and engagement was dragged to the bride’s, or plenty of food and many social events –
disappeared. Only in 1973 were all legal occasionally to the bridegroom’s, home a wedding thus cost very little extra, and
consequences of a betrothal/engagement in a facetious procession, often led by the the entire family was already assembled.
young people, the bridal couple’s A real farmer’s wedding went on for an
contemporaries, in the parish. There entire week, with new frolics and
were many local traditions as to how the jollifications every day, but many
Banns (lysning) – Crutch Pomp
tree was supposed to look (e.g. some clergymen tried to make their
(kryckeståt) or Reception
places it should have two tops), if it parishioners limit themselves to three
After the betrothal it was time to set should be decorated, pruned etc. In the days.
The wedding ceremony took place in
the date for the wedding. Before the house to where the tree had been dragged
wedding, banns had to be read three there would be a feast with revelries and the bride’s parish church. In Swedish the
Sundays in a row in the woman’s parish the tree was often “planted” and left so word for wedding – bröllop – actually
an that all could see that at this farm they means “bridal race” (brudlopp), and a
very long time ago the bride and
announcement that this woman and this were preparing for a wedding.
bridegroom rode (raced) on horseback to
their new home, and later to church (a
custom that for long lived on in e.g.
Värend in Småland); even later the
bridegroom used a carriage to fetch his
Norwegian bride with bridal crown, about
1900. Norwegian crowns were somewhat
differently made so that the brides could wear
their hair down; Swedish brides generally had
to put their hair up in order to make the crown
stay put. Photo Wikipedia
A proper bride from Skåne was supposed to
be covered with silver. Most of it was only
made from thin sheets of silver, but few
families had “enough” silver; you simply
borrowed from your entire extended family to
make the bride shine. Photo Ingela Martenius
bride from her home and drive her to
church. In church the bride and
bridegroom traditionally walked together
down the aisle, often under a bridal
canopy (brudpäll). Readers used to
Anglo-Saxon traditions may be surprised
to hear that there is no giving away of
the bride – but remember, the giving
away and all other legal formalities had
already been taken care of at the
betrothal and at the reading of the banns.
To all intents and purposes the church
wedding remained what it was before
1734: a private blessing.
There were quite a few old
superstitions surrounding the wedding
ceremony, it was e.g. usual for the bride
to have a silver coin in her shoe to make
sure the newlyweds would have a
prosperous home. Bridal bouquets are
however a late invention; in the old days
the bride usually carried a Book of
Prayers (psalmbok – often a betrothal
gift), commonly wrapped in some fine
cloth, in her hand. And as part of the
campaign to introduce and later confirm
church weddings as the only valid way to
marry, many churches invested in a
bridal crown, traditionally made in
gilded sterling silver. The bridal crown –
going back to the old Catholic image of
the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven
– was lent to brides who had not shared a
bed with their husband during the
betrothal period. Most places in Sweden
it was rather quickly accepted that it was
a special honour to be a “crown bride”
(kronbrud). In some parishes it was even
noted in the marriage record if a woman
had worn the crown or a bonnet – and
the note “bonnet” (mössa) was
acceptable only if the bride was a widow.
If it later turned out that the woman had
lied about her virginity, she had to pay a
fine – traditionally to “re-gild” the crown
in order to “cleanse” it.
After the wedding ceremony the
bridegroom drove his bride to the
wedding house (bröllopsgården), where
the celebrations started with an
enormous meal and continued with
frolics and dancing. It culminated with
putting the bridal couple to bed
(sängledning): the bride was brought into
the bridal chamber by the women, who
also undressed her (though she was of
course allowed to keep her chemise) and
put her to bed. It was common for the
bride’s hair to be let down (it was for
once newly washed) and the bride should
preferably wear the bridal crown, which
however was difficult to accomplish with
her hair let down. Then the men led in
the bridegroom and he was also put to
bed, while plenty of quite coarse jokes
were made. The bridal couple was
usually given a few good-size drams, to
enable them to “make it through the
night”. After that the oldest and most
eminent women in the company saw to it
that everybody left the bridal chamber
and the bridal couple was finally left
Outside the farmers estate the customs
were not that different, except that the
bridal couples after the mid 1700’s did
not have to endure the ceremony of
being put to bed and the very coarsest of
the jokes.
The Next Day
The day after the wedding ceremony
was the time for several important events
that would confirm the ceremony. The
new wife now had to don such articles of
clothing that were locally reserved for
wives: it often meant some special
headgear, but also other details in her
clothing could change. From this
morning the woman was not allowed to
show as much a single hair to anybody
but her husband. To really emphasize
this it was some places customary for the
woman’s hair to be cut off on this her
first morning as a wife.
Another important event was that the
size of the morning gift (morgongåvan)
was now made public. Most often it was
agreed upon in advance, as part of the
marriage contract, but in popular belief
the size of the morning gift depended on
how happy the woman had made the
man during the wedding night. The
morning gift was in reality a sort of will:
spouses did not inherit each other, and if
the husband died – and there were no
common children – all his property went
back to his family and the widow could
be left completely without means to
support herself. The minimum size of the
morning gift was ordered by law, and in
the church records you can often see a
note which says just that: “morning gift
according to law” (morgongåva enligt
lag). Morning gifts as means of
supporting the widow were not abolished
until 1920 when new inheritance laws
were enacted.
Divorce is not, as many believe, a
totally modern invention. For the nobility
it was not that uncommon – and as for
royalty, most people remember Henry
VIII and his divorces in the 16th century
– but also farmers and common
townspeople divorced.
Divorce was until the late 19th century
not handled by the common courts but
by the diocesan chapters. The men were
of course given custody of the children
since the women were minors and, in
most cases, could not provide for them.
It is to be noted that if you wished to
break off a betrothal – even if you had
not shared a bed with your betrothed –
this was handled exactly like a divorce,
also after 1734.
The bride must look good from behind too;
this is after all what is visible during the
church ceremony. The Skåne bride (right)
took pride in her two-coloured skirt and lots of
ribbons while the Dalarna bride had a collar
with beads and flowers that was equally big
front and back. Photo Ingela Martenius
The very finest clothes you could lay
your hands on have always been used for
weddings. From the middle of the 18th
century people began wearing special
wedding clothes, but well into the 19th
century it was even in the highest
possible social circles not uncommon
that bridal clothes– however special –
were not meant to be worn only once but
were used again later for other
celebrations. What we today think of as
the traditional white wedding dress stems
from the first decades of the 19th century
when white was the fashion and was
thought to be particularly well suited to
young, innocent girls – it was not
thought quite “fitting” for young girls to
wear dresses in too bright colours.
The farmers wanted nothing to do with
the white dresses. In some parts of the
country the brides wore “just” their very
finest national dress, but in other parts
they started using special, often black,
dresses. In areas where the national dress
was no longer worn it was most often the
bride’s own best dress, in national dress
areas – where the bride had no further
use for such a dress – it was rented from
the bridal dresser (brudpåkläderskan).
Black may seem like a sad and unlikely
colour for a wedding, but it did not
matter much – the dress was nearly
completely covered by all the accessories
and embellishments hung on the bride. It
was e.g. the custom most places that all
the silk scarves a bride owned was to be
fastened to the bridal belt – a rich bride
could have upwards of ten (or more)
colourful scarves hanging over her skirt
and the bride’s bodice was often covered
by a very wide collar with glass beads.
When urbanization took off in the
1870’s the tradition of decorating the
bride decreased and eventually ceased –
what remained was a black “best dress”.
Traditionally it was the black dress the
girls were given at their confirmation
when they were 15 and which they wore
for the rest of their lives, for all
festivities, and were ultimately buried in.
By the end of the 19th century white
A bridal couple from Dyrön in Bohuslän,
around the turn of the century 1900. The
bride wears a black dress but a white veil –
note the bridegroom’s thin white gloves,
considered to be extra “fancy”. Photo Lina
confirmation dresses started to be worn,
and following this example white
wedding dresses were introduced in a
general way. However, as late as the
1950’s many women could simply not
afford a special dress and instead just
used, exactly according to tradition, a
“best dress”.
developed into something of a fashion of
their own, although you can of course
trace the ”normal” fashion in the
wedding dresses.
And the bridegroom – what became of
him? Well, as everybody knows the
bridegroom is just an accessory at
weddings, there only to serve as a foil for
the bride. A bridegroom has always
simply worn his very finest clothes
according to local fashion, regardless of
whether we are talking full evening dress
or national dress. Sometimes he is lent
some extra clothes – but one thing is for
sure: he may never be so handsomely
attired that anyone as much as gives him
a second glance. All attention on the
Using Your Swedish National Dress for a Wedding Today
A modern wedding: both bride and groom
very much dressed up. Breaking with all
traditions the bride wears a low-cut gown with
no sleeves. Photo Gunilla Andersson
If your national dress is from an area where special wedding traditions as to how
the bridal couple should dress are preserved, they should of course be adhered to. In
other areas you wear the most festive variation of dress you have, and the bride also
embellishes her dress by e.g. fastening silk scarves at her waist and wearing extra
national dress jewellery (“dress silver”, dräktsilver). The bride can by all means wear
a crown, but preferably not a veil.
The guests quite simply wear the very finest articles of national dress clothing they
possess; this is the greatest celebration there is.
Death and Burial
Today we have distanced ourselves
from death by institutionalising it: today
most people die in a hospital or a
hospice, and death is often perceived as
unfair and a failure of medical science.
Not so long ago death was something
that always had to be taken into account,
something that was close to everybody –
everyone had experienced losing a loved
one, and so sometimes we may think that
people in the old days did not grieve as
deeply as we do. But there are plenty of
testimonials in letters and diaries of
people in the past being at least as
distraught as we are over e.g. the loss of
a child – something we seldom have to
experience today but which was so
common in the past.
Causes of Death
Various reports tell us that Sweden
today has one of the highest average life
expectancies in the world, and to become
80-90 years of age is what we more or
less expect. We know of course that this
was not at all the case in the past.
Talking about average life expectancy in
the past will however be warped if you
do not discount infant mortality, which at
times in some places could exceed 50 %
(in Sweden today less than about 0,4 %).
If you survived childhood you stood a
very good chance of reaching 60, and
maybe 70. There were of course people
who became older than that also in the
past, but it was very rare for anyone to
become more than about 85 years of age.
Today it is what is usually termed
lifestyle illnesses, like cardiovascular
diseases and certain forms of cancer, that
kill us off. In the past it was above all
epidemics of diseases today extinct or
not existing in the developed world due
to improved living conditions, which
killed people: smallpox, typhus (called
nervfeber), cholera, dysentery (called
rödsot), syphilis and the childhood
illnesses like scarlet fever, diphtheria and
measles. Also pneumonia was often –
even mostly – lethal. The truly big cause
of death was however from the 19th
century tuberculosis, “the white death”; a
real cure for TB did not exist until after
the Second World War.
Even if access to professional medical
care can hardly be said to be available
throughout the country until the 19th
century it did exist before that. District
medical officers (provinsialläkare),
doctors working in the country and paid
by the state, were introduced in the 17th
century; as late as 1773 there were
however in the whole country only 43
district medical officers, with as many
assistants. A vocational school for
midwives was established in Stockholm
already in 1682; in 1808 the training was
six months. But it was only in 1777 that
When the vicar was sent for to attend the
dying (sockenbud), he always brought this
little travelling kit with a chalice and wafer tray
to be able to give a last Holy Communion.
Photo Ingela Martenius.
a national ordinance obliged all parishes
to have at least one trained midwife.
How well the law was adhered to was
however very different in different parts
of the country – on average there was in
1860 nationally one midwife for 1300
women; however, in Älvsborg county
there was only one midwife for 7700
women while in Stockholm, Uppsala
county and Skåne province there was one
midwife for 500 women. Proper
hospitals were also established from the
18th century: in 1765 and 1776 royal
commands were issued that county
hospitals should be established all over
the country, which was also done. So a
degree of access to professional medical
care did in fact exist; the greater problem
Epitaph picture from 1772 at the Släp parish church, south of Göteborg, of the Reverend Hjortberg with family. The vicar and his wife had all told
15 children, but only eight were alive when the picture was painted – the seven dead children are however present in the background or in their
cradles. In the same spirit it became popular to photograph the deceased in his coffin after photography was invented. Photo Ingela Martenius.
was perhaps instead that since medical
science was not very scientific the
doctors in many cases really did not
know much more than the “wise women”
the country folks most often turned to.
Memento Mori – Think of Death
Today few of us plan our own funeral,
even though undertakers try to convince
us to do it. In the past many gave minute
instructions on how they wanted their
funeral; it was immensely important to
have ”an honest funeral”, where nothing
was spared so the family could be proud
of it and look back on it as a nice tribute
to the deceased. Consequently you put
something by for the funeral, perhaps
mainly money. The guilds had e.g. their
own medical and funeral benefit
societies where members paid a fee and
then received a contribution towards –
sometimes even full payment for – their
funeral; also surviving widows could be
covered by the societies. People short of
money strangely enough – for us today –
put the burial insurance first, not the
medical insurance. Benefit societies
abounded in the 19th century and were
still around as late as the 1930’s.
But money was not the only thing to
be saved. In the 1950’s a teenage girl
helped her grandmother sort through a
few boxes in the attic and came across
some fabric that would be perfect for the
then so popular voluminous, starched
petticoats – but no, she was told quite
calmly by her grandmother, she could
not have that length of fabric, it was put
aside for the grandmother’s funeral. A
century earlier it was common for
farmers to save particularly good and
sturdy planks when cutting timber for
their own – and their families’ – coffin.
Some even made their own coffin, and
tested the fit carefully by lying down in
But not only the funeral was carefully
planned; you also carefully prepared to
die. Every serious illness could
potentially end in death. You most
definitely did not give up at once, but
tried everything both medical science
and popular belief could offer. Also
religion was used: prayers of intercession
(förbön) were said in church for the ill.
particularly potent if said in three
churches. But when it finally became
clear that nothing would help both the ill
person and his family resigned; now it
was time to prepare for a good, dignified
death. A good death was a prepared
death; a bad death was a hasty death
(which in those days did not necessarily
have anything to do with murder). The
vicar was summoned so that the dying
person could have a few words of
comfort, ease his conscience and receive
Communion. A clergyman was not
allowed to avoid such visits, even if it
concerned the most contagious diseases;
according to the Church Law of 1686 a
clergyman who failed to come was fined
half his annual stipend the first and
second time it happened – if it happened
a third time he was defrocked.
Certain measures could also be taken
to ease death: the dying person could be
given a candle to hold and the clock
could be stopped. Also, the sick-room
must be quiet, nobody should cry or
A funeral in Kville in Bohuslän province in 1933. The men wear white tie; the women in
black, but very elegant. The coffin is black – with sturdy handles – and bears a wreath of
white callas (bog arums). Photo Anna-Carin Betzén.
loudly lament. In the ceiling above the
dying person you could remove a plank
so that his soul could more easily leave
his body.
The Death
Today we are used to people dying in
hospitals with an undertaker arranging
everything so that the family has only to
attend the funeral. In the past people died
at home and all funeral arrangements
were made by family, friends and
As soon as someone had died a string
of activities began. First the deceased
had to be carefully washed; there were
often older women in the parish that did
this – not seldom the same person who
dressed the brides. Then the deceased
was dressed, as nicely as could be
managed. Many had saved their
bridegroom shirt/bride chemise for this
purpose. The deceased should also wear
fine, white stockings, preferably knitted
in expensive cotton. In the coffin – often
black for adults and white, yellow or
blue for children and young people – was
first placed wood shavings and on top of
that a sheet; a pillow was often made
from the sheet the deceased had died on.
The deceased was then placed in the
coffin and a sheet, often the bridal sheet,
was wound around him. Some, most
often men, left at once after the death to
tell friends and neighbours. If the vicar
was not present he had to be told
immediately – and not least, the sexton
must be informed of the death. The
sexton had to toll the bell for the passing
of a soul, preferably the very day the
death occurred. If the message arrived
A modern, light funeral with a white coffin and plenty
of beautifully arranged flowers but no wreaths.
Photo Ingela Martenius.
too late the bell tolling had to wait until
the next day since it was carefully
regulated when and how the bells should
be tolled for different persons. It is often
said that we are all equal before death –
but when it came to bell tolling, funerals
and tombs there was no equality. The
hour of tolling the bell was decided by
the social status of the deceased: the
higher the status, the later the bell was
tolled. For poor people the bells could
toll as early as 8.30 in the morning while
they were tolled at noon for the nobility
– others in between. The deceased’s age
decided how long the bells were tolled;
for a child only a few minutes, for old
people an hour or more. If the parish had
several bells, the smaller bell was used
for women and the larger for men. For
Royals all bells in the country could toll
for an hour every day for an entire year,
but there was no tolling at all for
stillborn babies or suicides. In popular
belief the bells’ tolling helped a soul out
of purgatory and into eternity, but the
clergy was not always kindly disposed
towards tolling bells for the passing of a
soul since this belief originated in
Catholic times. So in some places fees
were introduced for bell-tolling, also it
would take place only at certain times.
In a house of mourning white sheets
were put up before all windows; often
the furniture was covered as well. It was
particularly important to cover all
mirrors, since the house could otherwise
be haunted. Secular ornaments and
pictures were put away – and even potted
plants had white paper wrapped around
them. In the room where the dead person
was laid out until the funeral (it could be
a shed or a granary if there was no
suitable room available indoors) the
walls were covered by white sheets,
sometimes decorated with garlands of
black wool, on the floor chopped juniper
twigs (hackat enris) were usually strewn
and a picture with the deceased’s name,
years of birth and death, and a suitable
hymn was often hung.
When the deceased in his coffin had
been placed in the room it was time for
people to come and “view the body”
(skåda liket). Everybody in the village,
including small children, attended as a
matter of course, but people would come
also from other villages. The custom was
to touch the deceased, for according to
popular belief he would then never
bother you again. The night before the
funeral a wake was held. Wakes were
really prohibited in the Church Law of
1686, but it was so firmly rooted among
Examples of mourning dress from the provinces of Bohuslän (Isabelle Falsen, left) and
Småland (Stina Olsson, right.). Note the broad hems of the aprons; the closer related you
were to the deceased, the broader the hem. Photo Ingela Martenius.
the rural population that it was
impossible to stop – a wake was
something to look forward to with
company, food and drink.
The Funeral
In the past funerals took place on
Sundays, before the service. The funeral
party assembled early in the house of
mourning for the deceased’s exit (likets
utfärd). In earlier times the vicar held an
“exit devotion” (utfärdsandakt), but
since morning service then risked being
delayed this was prohibited by the
Church Law of 1686. Instead it was
some well-respected local person who
led a short devotion with prayers and
hymns; often concluded by a so-called
remembrance cup (minnesdrickning), i.e.
glasses were raised in memory of the
deceased. Remembrance cups could
occur as late as the 1970’s on the west
coast. After the devotion funeral sweets
(begravningskonfekt), wrapped in black
and white paper and sometimes
decorated with e.g. angels, could be
distributed; funeral sweets were saved
and some could boast of veritable
collections on the mantelpiece.
The coffin was then nailed shut and
the body was carried out of the house; it
must be done feet first since the dead
could otherwise catch sight of the door
and return. The parish was divided into
bier teams who took turns carrying; close
relatives should not carry the bier. The
bier the coffin was carried on was lent by
the church, as was the pall. Long ago the
bier was carried by hand all the way, but
however located
inside the church.
For a fee the
church could in
fact be used by
when churches
later were heated
they came into
more general use
Funerals were
carried out with
as much pomp
and circumstance
was a thoroughly
In the middle of life there was always death. Here a reminder from a
“honest funeral”
thoroughfare in central Göteborg: a gate leading in to the old so-called
cholera cemetery with a plaque saying “Think of Death”.
Photo Ingela Martenius.
begravning). To
be buried “quietly” (i stillhet) meant
that the deceased was buried in
hallowed ground by grace, e.g. if
someone had committed suicide which
was to say a “dishonest” (ohederlig)
funeral. When eventually even the
working classes – e.g. by diligent
saving in the funeral benefit society –
could afford funerals with more pomp,
the upper classes started a fashion of
quiet burials!
Funeral Repast (gravöl)
Rural people’s graves were until the late 18th
century marked only by simple wooden crosses,
but it was only after about 1860 that a fine stone
tomb became the norm for all but the poorest.
Here an upper middle class city tomb from
1937. Photo Ingela Martenius.
if it was very far it would be dragged by
horses. A funeral procession made a
deep and solemn impression; the longer
the procession was, the better it was
thought to be. In the cities the funeral
party followed the hearse in a procession
of horse-drawn carriages; sometimes
empty carriages were added to the
procession to make more of a show.
In the past it was unusual to have the
funeral in the church. The coffin was
instead brought directly to the grave and
the burial took place there; if the
deceased was high-ranking enough the
After the burial the funeral party went
back to the house of mourning where a
repast (gravöl – literally “grave beer”)
was served. The repast was a meal
with many courses. However, it was
not as expensive as might be expected
since the guests, according to set local
customs, brought food (förning). The
repast was at first a serious affair but
after a while the food – and above all
the alcohol – could turn it into quite a
gay event. To conclude the meal a cake
garnished in black and white was often
served. The guests were not allowed to
depart empty-handed; in the country they
should have part of their food back, and
in the towns they were sent home with
e.g. a gigantic kringla (a sort of bagel).
Already during antiquity black clothes
were used for mourning. In Scandinavia
there are some indications that black
mourning dress was used as early as the
10th century. However, black was not the
universal mourning colour until fashion
dress became black, patterned on the
renaissance so-called Spanish dress.
From this black fashion dress stemmed
Court mourning dress; for women black
with a big white collar and a white
apron. Conservative people still practice
this: black is worn to all funerals but
black and white is worn for the very
closest relatives – men wear a white tie,
women a white collar with their black
dress. This dress also exactly matches
the national dress “general” mourning
clothes. However, in some parts of the
country mourning clothes looked
somewhat different: in e.g. Dalarna there
are yellow and yellow-and-black striped
aprons for mourning, and particularly in
Skåne the female custom was for long to
wear a skirt on top of the head (looking
much like an Afghan burqa). Men’s
mourning clothes have always been
simpler; it could e.g. be enough to wear a
black crape hatband. In certain countries
a Royal lady may wear white for
mourning instead of black; the British
state visit to France in 1937 took place
when HM Queen Elizabeth (later “The
Queen Mother”) was in mourning for her
mother and the Queen’s wardrobe was
all white.
Mourning dress was not put away
straight after the funeral. Rural widows
wore mourning for at least a year –
which tallied with the prohibition on
remarrying until a year had passed since
the husband’s death (men needed to wait
only six months). In towns a widow
ought to wear weeds for three years;
after the first year she could shorten her
floor-length veil to the shoulders.
Using Your Swedish Natinal Dress for a Funeral Today
If your national dress is from an area where specific traditions as to how mourners
should dress are preserved, they should of course be adhered to. In other areas you
wear the darkest variation of dress you have, also with the least patterns. Women
wear a plain white apron with a very broad hem (half the apron or higher) fastened in
the back with the apron strings down to the skirt hem, a plain white shawl and, if no
mourning bindmössa is available, a white scarf on top of the usual bindmössa; no
jewellery (silver). Men wear a white or black tie, grey or black garters. Everyone, if
possible, wears a jacket/coat, preferably not open.
Unfortunately all literature is in Swedish; only one or two books may – as far as I know – be
translated into English.
ARNÖ BERG, INGA & HAZELIUS BERG, GUNNEL; Folkdräkter och bygdedräkter från hela Sverige.
ICA bokförlag, Västerås 1975
BERG, GÖSTA; Svensk bondekultur, Bonnier, Stockholm 1971
BJURMAN, EVA LIS; Catrines intressanta blekhet: unga kvinnors möten med de nya kärlekskraven
1750-1830, B. Östlings bokförlag Symposion, Eslöv 1998
BONDESSON, LARS; Seder och bruk vid livets slut, Verbum, Stockholm 1987
BRINGÉUS, NILS-ARVID; Livets högtidsdagar, Carlsson, Stockholm 2007
CENTERGRAN, ULLA; Bygdedräkter, bruk och brukare, Etnologiska föreningen i Västsverige,
Göteborg 1996
GUSTAVSSON, ANDERS; Minnesdrickning vid begravning, Uppsala universitet, Uppsala 1980
HELLSPONG, MATS & LÖFGREN, ORVAR; Land och stad: svenska samhällen och livsformer från
medeltid till nutid, Gleerup, Malmö 1994
IGHE, ANN; I faderns ställe, department of Economic History at Göteborg University, Göteborg 2007
KNUTS, EVA; Något gammalt, något nytt: skapandet av bröllopsföreställningar: [en avhandling om
klänningar, ringar, smink, frisyrer, foton & mycket mer], Mara, Göteborg 2006
LIBY, HÅKAN; Kläderna gör upplänningen. Folkligt mode – tradition och trender. Uppland museum,
Uppsala 1997
LILJEWALL, BRITT; Bondevardag och samhällsförändring: studier i och kring västsvenska
bondedagböcker från 1800-talet, Department of History at Göteborg University,
Göteborg 1995
LUNDQVIST, PIA; Marknad på väg: den västgötska gårdfarihandeln 1790-1864, Department of
History at Göteborg University, Göteborg 2008
LÖFGREN, ANDERS PERSSON; A Few Stories from the Life of Anders Persson Löfgren, manuscript
deposited at Utah State Historical Society (Salt Lake City, Utah, USA), reference
number MSS A 5148, department of ”Manuscripts”
MORRIS, CHRISTINE; En mångsidig präst och hans äreminne, i Populär historia nr 1/1994.
NYLÉN, ANNA-MAJA, Folkdräkter ur Nordiska museets samlingar, Nordiska museet, Stockholm
NYLÉN, ANNA-MAJA, Som man är klädd blir man hädd, Institute of Ethnology at Nordiska museet
and Stockholm University, Stockholm 1978
PETTERSSON, LARS; Läs- och skrivkunnighet och jordbruksomvandling: om skånska bönder under
skiftenas tid, Department of Economic History at Lund University, Lund 1996
SVENSSON, SIGFRID, Bygd och yttervärld: studier över förhållandet mellan nyheter och tradition,
Nordiska museet, Stockholm 1979
SVENSSON, SIGFRID; Folkligt dräktsilver: ur Kulturens samlingar, ICA bokförlag, Västerås 1978
SVENSSON, SIGFRID; Folklig dräkt, Liber Läromedel, Lund 1974
SÖDERPALM, KRISTINA; Dödens riter, Carlssons, Stockholm 1994
WISTRAND, PER GUSTAF; Svenska folkdräkter: kulturhistoriska studier, Nordiska museet, Stockholm
CHURCH RECORDS (births & baptisms, banns & weddings, death & burial, household examinations,
migration) from above all the counties of Älvsborg, Malmöhus, Kristianstad,
Värmland, Göteborgs & Bohus, Skaraborg, Jönköping and Kalmar.
SVENSKA AKADEMIENS ORDBOK (SAOB): the historic dictionary of the Swedish language
NATIONALENCYKLOPEDIN: the Swedish National Encyclopaedia
Rites of Passage in Sweden
Rites of Passage in Sweden describes the four greatest events in a
person’s life, what is usually termed rites of passage, with an
emphasis on the period of 1686 – 1914. In 1686 came the Church Law
that had such an influence on our ancestors’ lives and in 1914 the First
World War effectively ended a world that had been on its way out
since the 1870’s when Sweden was industrialised.
Rites of Passage comprises birth and baptism, confirmation and
becoming an adult, betrothal and wedding, and death and burial.
About the author:
Ingela Martenius was born in 1956
in Göteborg, Sweden’s second
biggest city and largest port, situated
on the Swedish west coast, where she
grew up. She studied law at Lund
University but abandoned her studies
two semesters short of her bar exam
since she found it to be more fun to
Airlines). The airline thought Ingela
would make an excellent programmer
/ systems analyst and sent her to
college and eventually to Stockholm
University to study computers. In
1997 she was made responsible for
all computer operations for all
Stockholm (the capital) but quit SAS
in 2003 to pursue studies in
ethnology at Göteborg University,
graduating with a Master of
Philosophy (M Phil) degree in the
spring of 2008. Two of Ingela’s
favourite pastimes are genealogy and
making Swedish national dresses.
A typical 18th century farm in northern Sweden; from Jamtli in Östersund
(Jämtland province). Photo Isabelle Falsen.
The picture shows Ingela wearing
a national dress from Bohuslän at the
May 17th celebrations (Norway’s
National Day) in 2007in Oslo.
An 18th century village on the west coast; Äskhult in Fjäre district (Halland
province). From left. Lena in a national dress from Fjäre, Ingela and Isabelle from
Bohuslän province. Photo Isabelle Falsen.