Cemeteries tell us a great deal about a culture and a society. In some ways they are better than books or speeches because cemeteries convey the ideas and values of a culture in a way that is unique.
When you visit Hietaniemi cemetery in Helsinki, you discover several things. First, this is a country that places a high regard for its military deceased.
When we were there, there were many wreaths laid at the markers and tombs, especially for military figures. These wreathes are large and hard not to notice.
Second, as much as Finland likes to think of itself in terms of a country and culture that values equality above all else, the idea goes against human nature. The tomb of Mannerheim expresses this idea best. Mannerheim can be considered a type of national hero of Finland, maybe the best known Finn to have lived. His tomb stands apart from everyone else and is large and in charge.
Third, Christianity is still important. Granted this is a church cemetery, but then again, just about all cemeteries are run by the church – it’s enshrined in Finnish law for the church to provide this service. I think the church makes the most of this in a positive way – the care and concern shown for the deceased in the cemetery is incredible.
Fourth, at the heart of the cemetery stands a chapel. It sits silently and is only used for funerals. It’s large, stands tall and is surrounded by beauty. This is also true in Finnish society in general.
Lastly, the effort to enshrine equality, with the exception of figures like Mannerheim, are all around. The above monument lists the names of all the soldiers who died defending Finland during WWII. It’s quite impressive.