Great tit and metal bird

In a recent post, I identified modern gravestones as a medium upon which birds might perch, bringing life, movement and atmosphere to seemingly solid, static and lifeless cemetery spaces. I also alluded to modern gravestones are a versatile medium in which avian motifs and forms constitute elements of mortuary commemoration.

Nowhere does this come together more clearly than my experiences in 2010 and 2012 visiting the Hietaniemi cemetery in Helsinki, Finland. On my first visit I went to the cemetery alone, exploring Finland’s capital whilst there examining a doctoral thesis at the University. I went through the entire cemetery exploring it from south to north over several hours.

Metal bird perched on a memorial

Birds seem to be a feature of early 20th-century gravestones, principally swans and geese, but other birds too. There are more late 20th-century examples, and the proliferation seems to be a 21st-century phenomenon.

Swan upon a family grave
Tough old bird? A 1930s eagle
1930s fowl in flight
1950s seagull
Birds on a grave-slab – are they gannets?
One of my favourists, three birds ascending
Twin birds, cross and multiple names

My second visit was while I was participating in the EAA conference in Helsinki where I co-organised a session on the archaeology of cremation, now being considered for publication as an edited collection. On this second visit I had the privilege of conducting my cemetery tour in the company of the incomparable Dr Liv Nilsson Stutz. I rarely visit cemeteries with anyone else, least of all another archaeologist, so this was a special treat for me.

DSCN3791Hietanami fascinated me in many regards in terms of modern mortuary commemoration; so much was familiar and so much was fresh and new by looking at gravestones in a modern European city that differs in its history so much from the UK.

One thing that struck me was the widespread avian themes. First, on both visits I encountered many red squirrels among the graves, but also great tits at Hietaniemi. One jumped around on top of the memorials close to me, sometimes sitting next to metal equivalents as part of the memorial.


Second, a surprisingly wide range of bird species appear on the mortuary art – raptors, geese, swans, swifts, seabirds, waders and songbirds – perched and in flight. Some as mass-produced metal or stone forms, some as unique individual pieces of artwork.


A bird looking down on a worn inscribed names upon the cross
Three birds, three names

Birds have a wider Fennoscandian theme in mortuary commemoration and they are widespread in Swedish cemeteries too from my experience. They are a secularising version of angels and cherubs, which are also present but not as prevalent.

Twin birds and twin plaques

What are these birds ‘doing’ in Finnish mortuary art? Like cherubs and angels, they simultaneously focus mourners on the soul of the dead, its journey and fate. They not only reflect on loss but also senses of companionship between the living and also between the dead, and the shared fate of both the living and the dead.

A pair of snipes

There are cases where the number of birds depicted matches the number of names on the memorial: is this coincidence or are, in some cases, mourners likening each bird to the family? Are pairs of birds nestling together or flying together evoking the companionship of married couples?

Sometimes birds appear heraldic or idiosyncratic, denoting something of the individual or family’s aspired or actual status, such as a grand eagle or raptor.

Perched hawk

In other instances, one wonders if the bird is a reflection on the personality of a particular dead individual. Thus rather than exclusively simple allusions to spiritual ascent and thus salvation, birds are mutable.

Three swans
perching pairs
swans in flight


In this regard, I am particularly interested since the vast majority of the memorials I saw are over family graves and, in particular, over the graves of the cremated dead. Cremation in both ancient and modern times is about corporeal fiery transformation into a range of elements and substances, including steam, smoke and hot air, all of which rise upwards from the flames. It strikes me that avian ascent and cremation have deep roots and many manifestations.

A flying bird inscribed and in brass upon the gravestone

While I wouldn’t claim the allusions are exclusively to cremation, I would argue that part of the significance in modern memorials is to articulate through avian art the sense of physical ascent while retaining a rooted presence in the earth. Birds articulate this journey in the imagination, but do they also operate as a material euphemism for the cremation process itself?

three birds: one on top, two in a niche
The most abstract of bird representations from the cemetery that I witnessed

This is clearest when birds are added to memorial forms uniquely designed to commemorate the cremated dead. One plot, central to the cemetery, employs a strikingly thin, tall, white-stone set of pillars to memorialise interred ashes. Promoting a sense of ascent, it is unsurprising that a wide range of birds are appended to their sides and tops; a veritable aviary for the cremated dead!

The swift and the dead
perching birds
An aviary for the cremated dead?