Lagos. Saturday. Neighbors.
“Think about death.” That’s what the sign at one of the entrances to Stampen’s cemetery in Gothenburg in Sweden reads. During my youth, I passed this serious reminder daily while taking the tram to have coffee at either two of our favorite cafés, Jungans or Evas Paley, in downtown Göteborg.
In those teenage years, death was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I felt immortal. Today, more than 40 years later, the presence of death is much more tangible, especially now that we live next to a beautiful, old cemetery.
I’m moderately superstitious. I indeed avoid walking under ladders, always handle mirrors with extra care, prefer not to stay on the thirteenth floor of hotels, and I’m reluctant to open umbrellas indoors, even though deep down, I know that superstition is as irrational as believing in ghosts, Santa Claus, or Donald Trump.
Having a few hundred graves as neighbors still affects me. I suppose it serves as a reminder of life’s transience and the end of oour mysteriously undefined timeline here on Earth.
It’s like the ultimate cliffhanger.
We can see most of the cemetery from the house’s three small terraces, and we’ve also walked among the graves a couple of times. There are several impressive mini-mausoleums, and even the simpler graves are adorned with colorful plastic flowers. When we were walking around the cemetery the other day, I was reminded that my mother and grandparents no longer have a dedicated gravesite at the cemetery outside Trollhättan.
Several years ago, my now-dead uncle stopped paying for the grave care, and the Swedish Church has then the right to remove and destroy the gravestone, despite the family having paid for it and the grave’s upkeep for over 30 years.
In 2020, the Swedish Church reported assets of approximately 42 billion kronor. Their refusal to allow the gravestones of Agnes, Eskil, and Solveig Andersson to remain is sufficient proof that the Swedish Church (and all other religious institutions) operate just as ruthlessly profit-driven as any other corporation (or mafia family).
But the significant difference is that the church uses emotional blackmail and threats of going to hell as its primary selling points. When I occasionally choose to eat at McDonald’s, Taco Bell, or Pizza Hut, at least I know I’m eating bad food and that the advertising is heavily skewed and retouched. No one has yet been able to prove that the church’s lofty promises hold an ounce of truth (no one can disprove their claims either).
I understand why people still cling to religion, especially as we reach a more fragile age. Religion offers a kind of insurance for life’s final journey but without a deductible. Imagine if it turns out there is an all-knowing, all-powerful patriarch/matriarch in a gigantic, heavenly control tower, managing everything in secret, like some kind of Oz? And that death means you do get everything promised in the “brochure,” including semi-opaque angels playing heavenly snippets on sparkling harps.
In the new book I’m working on, among many other things, I touch on death and how we men can handle thoughts about the inevitable without becoming too depressed.
Charlotte suggested that I include the concept of “Swedish Death Cleaning,” which she read about in a book with the same name by author Margareta Magnusson. So now that’s in the book too.
One of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever visited is on the outskirts of Havana, which is ironic considering that the Castro brothers’ version of Marxism doesn’t leave much room for hymns and religion.
Inside the cemetery that has been our neighbor for a few weeks, some of the area’s stately cypresses might be older than the cemetery itself. I wonder if their root systems penetrate the graves and draw nourishment from the bodies of the dead. Maybe the trees are so stately precisely because of the local food chain.
About ten years ago, my friend Jan Axel Olsen died. He and I got to know each other in Gothenburg’s commercial harbor back in the summer of 1988 when we unloaded banana boxes labeled Uncle Tuca, Del Monte, and Chiquita from rusty Russian cargo ships registered in Panama. After that summer, Janne and I kept in touch until his sudden passing.
Janne had previously worked at the large Kviberg cemetery in Gothenburg. When I asked what he did there, whether he dug graves, he replied as usual with quick wit: “Yes, but we called ourselves ‘departure assistants.’”
Long after Kviberg and the banana gig in the harbor, Janne became a lawyer and during his relatively short career, represented, among several other odd clients, the infamous Swedish rap artist Leila K.
About once a week, I visited his office next to the cathedral in Gothenburg, usually before we went out to have lunch. He often talked about his assignments and legal cases, probably more than he should have, and the lunches could sometimes drag on. Just as I now realize this post has done…