In this section, I present the narratives of Fanny and Astrid. Fanny is one of the Swedish-born narrators who talks about the importance of having a religiously neutral ceremony, not affected by Christianity or the Church of Sweden. The name giving ceremony she has created is a tribute to heterosexual love, core families and motherhood, the way she understands it. Astrid is a Swedish-born, upper middle class, elderly woman. She talks about the funeral of her husband, who was an outspoken atheist, as the moment in memory of the deceased, as well as a time for mourning together with friends and family. Astrid expresses the loss of a ritual manuscript to hold on to and the narrative presents how power is situated in ritualization.
5.1. Constructing Middle Class Motherhood in a Name Giving Ceremony
Fanny, a Swedish born well-educated woman around 35 years of age, has a high position within social health services. She is not baptized and has never been a member of the Church of Sweden. However, she visits churches occasionally because she likes the space, she says. Fanny married in church because her husband-to-be wanted to, but it seems like she would not have chosen to do it otherwise. When the couple had their first child, it became important to Fanny to celebrate the birth of the child. In the interview, she says that she absolutely did not want the child to be baptized, as she did not want to decide about her daughter’s membership in a religious organization. Moreover, Fanny says that she feels uncomfortable with the sayings in the Baptism ceremony. “One asks very, very big questions to a child who does not understand, so I have not felt comfortable with baptism,” Fanny says. On the other hand, Fanny expresses that she has nothing against Christianity as such. “As I think, she [the daughter] is welcome to get baptized, I would be glad if she wanted to get baptized one day, however it is not something that I will do for her,” Fanny says. She emphasizes the importance of not directing her daughter in any religious way, and she does not want anyone else to do it either: “I do not know if she will become a Christian. Maybe she wants to belong to some other religion, and I do think that no one is to guide her. Of course, I have many values that I will transfer to her, but I do not have a wish to shape her to become a Christian,” Fanny says.
Fanny’s narrative reveals an ambivalent relation to religion (cf. Lee 2015a
). She makes it clear that she wants to distance herself from religion, at least Christianity, but at the same time, she says that she would be happy if her daughter wanted to be baptized. However, Fanny seems to take it for granted that her daughter should want to be religious in some way. The story gets even more complex as Fanny says that her husband wanted to baptize their child. According to him, that is something one just has to do when a child is born, and he likes the ceremony, Fanny says in the interview. “I understood that he had a very strong feeling for baptism, which is not really tied to any particular faith in God. And then I thought it reasonable that my discomfort before it would win over his desire for just such a ceremony,” Fanny says. After a discussion about the morally propriety of having a religious rite if one is not a believer oneself, the husband changed his mind and agreed on not letting their child be baptized. However, then he at first was not interested in having any ceremony at all. Nevertheless, when Fanny had explained to him that this was important to her, he agreed on having a name giving ceremony.
Previous research has revealed that there can be some tension surrounding life-cycle rituals. Couples might have different views on the value of tradition, for example, or they might disagree on the type of narrative being told about the meaning and purpose of the ritual (Jarnkvist 2011, p. 180ff
; Lee 2015b, p. 181
). Both examples seem to reflect Fanny’s and her husband’s situation. However, the use of an intersectional perspective can help us better understand this tension. Fanny’s story clarifies that the norm of baptism is strong not only in her husband’s family but also among their common friends. The couple had participated in many Baptism rituals, however, name giving ceremonies were new to them. Deciding to have a name giving ceremony includes breaking strong norms and traditions. This can be difficult for many people (e.g., Jarnkvist 2019
). Why so? From an intersectional perspective, it pertains to the impact of different power relations. According to previous research, celebrating life-cycle rituals in the Church of Sweden can be a way to show loyalty with, and in relation to, Sweden as a nation (e.g., Jarnkvist 2011
; Reimers 1995
; Høeg 2009
; Bäckström et al. 2004
; Wiig-Sandberg 2006
). It is a way to construct Swedishness. Name giving ceremonies do not (yet) have these connotations. Moreover, inviting friends and family to life cycle rituals seems to be an important part of constructing the middle class in Sweden (Jarnkvist 2011
). If the couple had chosen not to have a ceremony they would have broken with this norm. However, Fanny treated the situation in the same way as several other Swedish born narrators. She transferred ritual practices from the baptism into the civil ceremony. Fanny hired a celebrant, and instead of water on the child’s head, as in Christian baptism, Fanny’s child got a crown of flowers. “This was when it happened,” Fanny said in the interview, emphasizing the importance of a transition act in the ritual. The ritual of the Church of Sweden was used as a normative foundation out of which the civil ceremony was designed (cf. Jarnkvist 2019
). The similarity made the name giving ceremony a “real rite,” according to Fanny. The importance of traditionalization and the similarity between the rites is made visible. In addition, Bell
(1997, p. 145
) describes the element of traditionalization as very important in ritualization. The fact that civil ceremonies often inspires with the rites performed in churches has been recognized in previous research (Høeg 2009
; Jarnkvist 2011
; MacMurray and Fazzino 2017
). My interpretation indicates that, by transforming practices from the religious ritual into a non-religious context, Fanny constructs non-religion in intersection with middle class Swedishness. The civil ceremony’s similarity to the religious hegemonic ritual gives the name giving ceremony credit, in the eyes of friends and family as well as Fanny’s husband, and Fanny’s (as well as her husband’s) social status is guaranteed (cf. Jarnkvist 2019
Why then, was it more important to Fanny than to her husband, to have a ceremony celebrating the birth of their child? A close reading of Fanny’s story about what she found to be especially important in the ritualization might answer that question. When I ask Fanny about it in the interview, she says:
The choice of songs felt very important. Probably more for me than for my husband. So, I thought about them long and long. It was important to me that the songs were non-Christian. That it didn’t slip in anything Christian. That it was songs that described the love we felt. The gratitude we felt. For me, it was also a way to lift the songs that I myself, as a very young thought, that these are children’s songs. That I finally got to use my youth’s thoughts about being a parent.
Fanny clarifies that the choice of songs were important in the planning of the rite and she mentions three things of certain importance; that the songs were ”non-Christian,” that they described the thankfulness and love that the couple felt towards their baby and, finally, that the songs confirmed the thoughts that Fanny had about parenthood. The place that God and the church have in the Christian baptism have been replaced in the name giving ceremony with the small child as an individual and the family as a collective. By doing so, the rite is an example of the new ritual paradigm that Bell describes as a part of the current individualization (cf. Bell 1997, p. 264
). Focusing on the child as an individual might also be interpreted as a way of constructing non-religion by distancing from theism. The quotation also declares that non-religion is a form of difference, not only rejection of theism (cf. Lee 2015a
). After declaring that she distanced herself from Christianity in the ritualization, Fanny moves forward and presents the “secular sacred;” heterosexual love that is fulfilled through the love of the newborn child. The narrative makes visible how non-religion is constructed in intersection with sexuality, femininity, and motherhood. The choice of having a name giving ceremony was a way for Fanny to be released from the religious connotation to the Church of Sweden that baptism has and emphasizes the connection to the child instead.
Fanny says that she has longed to become a mother all her life. Becoming a mother is a strong norm in Sweden and an important aspect for many women in their construction of femininity (Bäck-Wiklund and Bergsten 1997, p. 51
). Fanny constructs a family collective, a heteronormative norm (Butler 2005
) with the woman in the center of the family, organizing the family celebrations.
A few years earlier, Fanny fulfilled another of the norms of femininity there is; namely to be a bride in a heterosexual wedding (cf. Adeniji 2008
). The wedding dinner was held at the same place as the name giving ceremony and songs of a certain artist were played at both occasions. By doing so, the songs made a link from the wedding to the name giving ceremony, and this was, according to Fanny, important to her. Fanny describes the song that was sang during the name giving ceremony as a “proclamation of love in the next stage.” She says that the song shows that “the love between me and my husband is developed to the next level of love.” The heterosexual core family and biological parenthood is made to norm and visualized in the ritual when Fanny chooses a song that symbolizes that the love that Fanny and her husband have for each other has developed into “the next level of love”: the small child. Quoting Lee’s
) words, non-religious experiences of heterosexual love are expressed in the name giving ceremony. Knott uses the term “the secular sacred” (Knott 2013
) when describing occasions (such as name giving ceremony), persons (parents and child), things (a crown of flower), places (a rented restaurant) and principles (love and freedom): those things that secular people value above all others, and that they see as set apart and inviolable (Knott 2013, p. 160
). Knott categorizes them as both
sacred. The name giving ceremony of Fanny and her husband’s daughter might be an example of the secular sacred, as Knott describes it.
In short, using an intersectional perspective in the analysis of Fanny’s narrative, I understand the name giving ceremony to be an important link for Fanny in a chain of rituals (wedding and name giving ceremony) which all together construct a heteronormative, middle class life script as a swede. The celebration of the love between the parents on one hand and the child on the other hand can be an indication of individualization (cf. Bell 1997, p. 264
). However, this type of individualization, which emphasize authenticity and autonomy in rituals, is a middle-class norm (cf. Jarnkvist 2011, 183ff
). Being a middle-class woman and mother, the name giving ceremony is an important event for Fanny in her construction of femininity as a partner to her husband and as mother to their daughter. The name giving ceremony is a celebration of heterosexual love and the core family. Moreover, Fanny distances from the Church of Sweden and constructs non-religion in intersection with femininity, heterosexuality, and middle class Swedishness.
5.2. Astrid’s Search for a Nonreligious Death Culture
My next example of ritual narrative is a story that sheds light on the problem of death as an area where the nonreligious are disadvantaged by a lack of an institutionalized nonreligious death culture (cf. MacMurray and Fazzino 2017
). The use of an intersectional perspective in the analysis of Astrid’s story, may give a more complex understanding of this problem.
I interviewed Astrid, a Swedish born, well-educated woman in her 70s, a few months after the funeral of her husband, Nils, who died after a short period of illness. Astrid describes Nils as a convinced atheist. He was a researcher in natural science, and as one of his colleagues said in a speech at the memorial after the funeral, Nils had his most spiritual experience looking at an Excel ark. “All the numbers were falling into place and everything was making sense,” Astrid cited in the interview.
While Nils grew up in an outspoken atheistic home, Astrid had a more religiously ambivalent upbringing, however, she says that she is a convinced atheist these days, and so are the couple’s children. The couple married in secret in a civil ceremony, “the shortest one can get,” when they were around their twenties. Astrid says that she wishes they had a bigger ceremony with family and friends invited to celebrate their marriage, however, at the time when they married, they wanted it simple. Some years after the marriage, the couple experienced a bereavement, which makes Astrid sad when she talks about it. One of their children was born dead. Astrid says that no one in the family wanted to go to a funeral of a baby. It was too hard. Astrid and Nils did not want a ceremony either. They chose to bury the child without a ceremony with only Astrid, Nils and the janitor present at the cemetery. However, Astrid regrets that a lot, she says. She describes what happened:
Then we had the urn in a box and then the church janitor in [the cemetery] came on a tractor, in rubber boots, and parked outside the church. Then he went in and turned on the clock so it rang. Then he lowered the urn, and that was it. That was too simple, even for my taste.
“It felt unworthy; the way the body was treated by the janitor at the cemetery,” Astrid says. With that experience in memory, it was important to Astrid that her husband should have some kind of ceremony and she says that it was self-evident that it should be a civil funeral.
Before I present the funeral of Astrid’s husband, I want to take a moment to reflect on Astrid’s ritual experiences. According to Lee
) it is common that non-religious people choose not to have ceremonies, as life-cycle rituals often have religious connotations. Astrid does not mention this, but I find that this was quite a big reason for the couple’s minimally ritualistic activities. The choice of having a small, civil wedding can also be perceived as a way of following a norm for that time, as big church weddings were seen as a bourgeois habit and therefore many people chose not to marry big, nor in church. Anyhow, nowadays, Astrid regrets both the small wedding and not having a ceremony for the deceased child. Astrid’s experiences of previous “non ritualization” is important to understand the struggle she underwent when planning the funeral of Nils.
There were many things for Astrid to solve before the funeral could take place and she expresses a feeling of loneliness in this. “As we do not belong to a congregation or any other community that organizes funerals, everything was up to me,” she says. The first thing that Astrid had to decide was who would be the officiant of the funeral, as neither Astrid nor any of her children wanted to take that role. The funeral office did not have anyone to recommend and Astrid did not want to consult the Humanists, as Nils were not very fond of the organization. After a while, a friend of Astrid recommended an officiant. Astrid asked her and she agreed.
Another issue was the venue for the funeral. Everyone who pays tax for funeral activities in Sweden is offered a room for the funeral. Normally, it is an old Christian chapel situated at the cemetery. When civil funerals are held in the chapels, religious symbols are hidden to make the room as neutral as possible, however, Astrid says that she finds the chapels repulsive anyway. She has been to several civil funerals in such chapels and her husband was the officiant for some of them when he was alive. Astrid had problems finding another proper room for the funeral, however, she finally found one, which she was very pleased with.
It was bright, you looked out over town, it was beautiful, the room, and I think it was great. Then there were no crosses and stuff like this, because we did not want that. Even if you use ecclesiastical premises and they are not so very “crossy,” somehow there is still some church stamp on it anyway. For I have thought of that on the funerals that Nils has been the officiant for, that it has still been these fonds where you put up the hymn numbers, or the hymnbooks have stood somewhere. Although it has not been conspicuous, it has been visible all too well. Therefore, in that way, it was nice that it was a completely profane local.
Astrid’s resistance against chapels is visible in the quotation. The presence of Christian symbols is too much for her to handle. Astrid’s experiences highlight the importance of recognizing materialism in understanding non-religion. As Engelke
) contends, secularities cannot be reduced to ideologies; they are embodied, emplaced, and objectified. Rituals hold a lot of symbols and material, and are therefore relevant material for understanding the construction of non-religion. The presence of Christian symbols such as a cross or icons might be very difficult for a non-religious person to encounter, which Astrid’s quotation is an example of. By choosing a profane room, clean from religious symbols, Astrid positions herself in relation to religion, taking a clear stand against it, and the choice of room becomes a part of her construction of non-religion. Astrid says that the room where the ceremony was held was light, and had a view of the city. This seems to have been of importance to her.
When Astrid had booked an officiant and a room for the funeral, she had to decide about the form of the funeral. Astrid says that she took impression of church funerals, which she had been to several times, and especially the funeral of a friend of hers, which took place shortly before the death of her husband.
(…) Therefore, I followed such rituals as are in ordinary church funerals. (…) I thought it was like a nice ritual, how to do it, to also gather people and create a mood, and so the interaction between what the priest said and what you sang and then how to go out together. (…) Then, I thought there was nothing wrong with doing it, just that you could have different words. Therefore, the form of the funeral, I have just taken right after church funerals, but filled it with substantially different content, which felt more right to me.
Like many others, Astrid more or less copied the form of Christian funerals when planning her husband’s civil funeral. As mentioned in the analysis of Fanny’s narrative, transforming ritual actions from a religious setting to civil ceremonies is common (e.g., Jarnkvist 2019
; Lee 2015b
), and may be a way to construct a manuscript for non-religion life course rituals (MacMurray and Fazzino 2017
). In the quotation, Astrid says that she did not find any problems with copying the form of Christian funerals, indicating that she had been thinking of the suitability of doing so in her husband’s funeral, who was very clear with not wanting any connection to Christianity in the funeral. The quotation conveys what a balancing act it might be to construct a civil ceremony, which has no manual to follow. This makes it complicated for many relatives, when organizing the funeral.
During the ceremony, the officiant gave a long speech, which she had written after interviewing the family about Nils. The speech focused on memories of Nils and his view of life. Astrid chose songs for the funeral that she knew her husband had liked. One of them was “Jag vill tacka livet,” which is a song about the greatness of life. She also rented musicians playing instruments that Nils liked. The unison song, Änglamark, is a well-known song in Sweden and one that Astrid guessed that many of the guests knew from before and could sing. The lyrics are about caring for Swedish nature. The officiant also read a poem that one of Astrid and Nils’ daughters had written. It was about the nature surrounding the family’s summerhouse. To summarize, the funeral centered on memories of Nils and his love for life, the Swedish nature, and his family. When I ask Astrid what she found to be central in the funeral, she answered:
Coming together. Togetherness. To mourn together, I think it was. I guess that is what we felt. (…) Yes, a farewell. In a way that would feel, which had content that would not have annoyed him. He would certainly not have wanted a religious content.
For Astrid, the funeral was about mourning together and to say goodbye to the deceased. She shares this experience with many others, regardless of the form of the funeral (e.g., Bäckström et al. 2004
; Wiig-Sandberg 2006
). However, in contrast to religious ceremonies, there was no talk about what might happen after death. Instead, the focus was on the deceased and his life. Garces-Foley
) argue that self-expression has become a central and effective ritual in contemporary funerals as a way to cope with the aftermath of death. However, like many other ceremonies in this study, the funeral had many connections to the Swedish nature, which appeals to something else than the individual. Like others, Astrid also said that she would have liked to have the funeral outside, amidst nature, if the weather would have allowed it. The nature can be understood to be a kind of a non-religious experience (Lee 2015a
), a “secular sacred,” something outside of the human being, which is of great value (cf. Knott 2013
). Nature has been shown to be of great value for many swedes in general, and to connect to nature can from that perspective be a way to construct Swedishness. In the quotation, Astrid says that she wanted to have the funeral in a way that would not have made Niels upset, as he would not have wanted a religious content. However, as I see it, the funeral is not primarily making resistance towards Christianity, it moves closer to something else, a construction of a positive kind of non-religion (cf. Lee 2015b
). It is a tribute to life and nature. From an intersectional perspective, the focus on nature can be understood to be a way to construct non-religion in intersection with Swedishness.
Astrid’s narrative clearly expresses a lack of “cultural tools” for making non-religious funerals, a phenomenon also highlighted in precious research. Examining death and bereavement among nonreligious Americans, MacMurray and Fazzino
) found that nonreligious people often find themselves excluded from normative death culture in America. Jarnkvist
) uncovered the same when studying places of rituals in Sweden. In contrast to rituals held in religious settings, civil ceremonies often lack specific places of ritual, so the ritual actors have to find one on their own. This might lead to feelings of rootlessness in relation to place.
Astrid gives an expression of missing a non-religious ritual form to hold on to, a place where the funeral should be held, and an officiant. Everything is up to the relatives of the deceased to decide. For people in bereavement this might be a very difficult task to accomplish. Moreover, it may also be a question of money, as renting a place to be in, an officiant and musicians, may cost a lot of money. Most of these things are free for those who are members of the Church of Sweden and have a church funeral. Astrid had use of her strong cultural and social capital, taking impression of funerals she had been to before and getting help from people in her network of contacts when constructing the funeral. Inspired by funerals held in the Church of Sweden, Astrid held on to a form which was common to herself as well as others taking part in the funeral. It was probably understood to be “the Swedish way” of conducting funerals. Having had a well-paid job during her working life, she probably also had enough money to pay for the costs that were connected to the funeral. Analyzing the funeral from an intersectional perspective, Astrid constructs non-religion in intersection with middle class Swedishness. Moreover, the intersectional perspective sheds light on Astrid’s experience of being in a dominant position (being a white, middle class atheist) and suffer from exclusion at the same time (feeling a loss of cultural tools). Drawing from Lee
), I argue that Astrid’s atheist position simultaneously empowers and disempowers her.