Death shadowed by life: Interpretations of suicide in late 19th-century rural Sweden
Based on records of popular beliefs and practices that were collected in the early 20th century, this article explores ideas of accountability and the relationship between life and death in interpretations of suicides in late 19th-century rural Sweden. It focuses on the part played by the actions and intentions of the self-murderer in popular interpretations of suicide, and on how perceptions of sin were related to understandings of suicide.
In contrast to earlier writings on suicide, where the focus is on the act of self-killing, suicidal deaths are analysed in relation to understandings of the self-murderer’s life and to understandings of other types of sudden death. In this context, the definition of suicide had less to do with the perceived intention and agency of the person who killed themself than with understandings of the suicide’s life. The key factor leading to the classification of a death as suicide was the presence of sinful acts in the past. Suicide was not unique in this regard but was part of a wider category of deaths caused by sinful acts. Sin had a pragmatic facet that was intertwined with, but did not presuppose, moral judgment. Apart from the moral condemnation that could result from committing a sin, sinning could also have real, harmful consequences. For example, sinful acts could result in the devil physically forcing the wrongdoer to kill themself. The strong connection between sin and suicide meant that even persons who had not meant to kill themselves were sometimes described as suicides.
A pragmatic understanding of sin also shaped the burial rites of suicides. The practice of burying self-murderers apart from others was not primarily understood to be a punishment of the dead person. Rather, it was a strategic method to protect the living from being haunted and endangered by the spirits of self-killers. It was a popular conception that suicides were more likely than other dead to haunt the living because they had not had the opportunity to confess their wrongdoings to God and were therefore deprived of the salvation of their souls.
In previous research, perceptions of suicide have been described as undergoing a secularisation process during the 19th century in which explanations
pertaining to supernatural beings were replaced with medical explanations. However, in the rural parts of Sweden examined here, conceptions of sin and the presence of an active devil in physical form still played a crucial part at the end of the century. Accountability in relation to suicide was understood in complex ways, especially since suicide was not determined by a self-harming act. Indeed, not all suicides were intentional at all. This study thus adds nuance to our understanding of accountability in relation to suicide in late 19th-century Sweden and sheds new light on the stigmatization of suicide.