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Rising cremation trend eases pallbearer shortage in Finland

Finnish parishes say they are cremating more people every year. The trend has helped ease demand for pallbearers, who are often hard to come by.

Risti ruumisarkussa.
Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

The number of mourners showing up to pay their last respects to the departed is decreasing steadily in Finland. So it comes as no surprise that pallbearer numbers are also declining.

In 2016, more than half of all funerals in Finland involved cremations. The national funeral services association said that between 2015 and 2016, the number of cremations increased by more than seven percent.

“For example at the Jyväskylä cemetery more than 60 percent of the dead have been cremated,” said Antti Pekuri, head of funeral services in the Jyväskylä parish.

However Pekuri would not speculate on whether or not a scarcity of pallbearers has affected the rise in the number of cremations.

Long distances to crematoria

Cremations in Jyväskylä have steadily increased every year since the local crematorium began operations in 1995. In 2017, some 137 people were cremated. The facility serves all of central Finland, but customers also come from outside the region, such as Mikkeli in southeast Finland.

Finland has a total of 23 crematoria in cities such as Tampere, Oulu, Helsinki and Kajaani. During a cremation funeral, coffins are transported to the crematorium rather than to a burial ground, leaving little for pallbearers to do.

If a deceased person receives a final blessing at a location near a crematorium, the coffin will nearly always remain on a raised dais, from where it will be removed to a cold storage unit to await cremation. If the cold room is in the same complex, a chapel usher alone can transfer it there.

However beyond the limits of the capital region, the situation can be completely different. The coffin may have to be taken to a crematorium, and in some instances the nearest facility may be dozens of kilometres away.

In such circumstances, pallbearers may be needed to move the coffin, either from the cold room to the church or chapel and then after the blessing into the hearse for transportation to the crematorium.

Volunteers to the rescue

In cases where pallbearers are required however, few are to be found, prompting churches and NGOs to train volunteers for the job.

Traditional pallbearers are older or younger men, but in practice there are no limitations on who can carry a coffin.

“I was once at a funeral where a woman’s daughters carried her coffin,” said volunteer pallbearer Reijo Ekman from Jämsä in central Finland.

Ekman rose to the challenge when Yle asked him to coach a group of upper secondary school students in the art of carrying a coffin. Although Yle put out an open call for the assignment, only young men stepped forward.

The solemnity of the task caused the youngsters to worry about the worst that might happen – they might not be able to keep the coffin steady, or might move to quickly, or even worse, someone might trip.

“It is an honour, a final service. The most important things are to be calm and respectful,” Ekman counselled the young men. All of the volunteers saw the experience as useful.

“If someone asks me, I could help,” said Eeli Lampinen.

“I won’t refuse if I’m asked,” Patrik Leander added.

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