Sweden now has its first cemetery in which a devout Catholic, fervent Muslim, and acknowledged atheist can spend eternity together.
According to a 2015 Gallup International and WI Network of Market Research survey, almost 80% of the Swedish people consider themselves to be “not religious” or a “convinced atheist”. Josef Erdem, with the permission of the Church of Sweden, had the vision of a “cemetery for everybody”. The cemetery is next to the Stora Tuna church, which already has a Christian graveyard; the church will even maintain both cemeteries. The only restriction in this universal resting place? No religious markers of any kind—no crosses, no depictions of God, no scripture passages from the Bible, and I would assume, no angels ascending upwards—and no nationalist symbols. Other than that, families can still use any decoration or adornment to memorialize the lives of their departed loved ones. So, God is out, but Elvis is in.
So why is a cemetery to accommodate the pious and the non-believer a newsworthy story? A universal, non-sectarian cemetery defies Catholic canon law going back to Biblical times. Consistent with Roman tradition, as illustrated by the story of Abraham, we want to be buried with our ancestors. This often results in separation of faiths even within cemeteries open to those of more than one faith. The Zentralfriedhof, Europe’s largest cemetery, includes separate sections for Catholics, Protestants, Jews and other religious groups. Tanya D. Marsh & Daniel Gibson, Cemetery Law 350 (God’s Acre Publishing 2015). Catholic canon law also limited church burial to those deemed in good standing at the time of their death. Why all these restrictions? The churchyard cemetery is consecrated ground and must be protected as such to ensure the salvation of the souls buried there. So, by letting just anyone in, the cemetery becomes just a place for dead bodies and no longer a religious waiting room in anticipation of the Resurrection.
On the other hand, a universal, non-religious cemetery allows inter-faith families to stay together instead of being separated for eternity due to differing religious beliefs. It can be seen as the ultimate acceptance of different belief and value systems. And, the family of the deceased can still memorialize the gravesite with symbols and relics honoring the departed—as long as God is left out of the picture.