Ilona Kemppainen, The shared grief of the Finnish people – attitudes towards fallen soldiers during the Winter War
The Finnish culture of burying fallen soldiers developed during the 20th century. In the Civil War of 1918 it was a common custom to bury the fallen near or in their home parishes. When the Winter War broke out in 1939, it was only natural to expect that the men who died in this war would also be buried in the same manner. After an intense discussion on matters of practicality and military traditions it became the practice to “evacuate the fallen to their home parishes”, as was the expression of the time and bury them there. Soldiers’ funerals were large occasions in which the local community could come together and express and manage the emotions raised by the war, not only the actual deaths.
In Finland all the fallen soldiers were called heroes, independent of their actual heroic deeds in war. This is quite telling of the atmosphere concerning death and war: it was understood to be a holy war against total evil, which was of course the Soviet Union. The Finnish soldiers were seen as ideal Finns: Christian soldiers who had turned their ploughshares into swords for the time being. Only an unseemly death, due to cowardice, suicide or accident could exclude a soldier from being buried in the common soldiers’ burial ground.
At the beginning of the war people turned to traditional texts about war, the nation and death. These were originally often written in the 19th century, but were put into use in 1939–1940 and also in the Continuation War. The entire worldview of nationalism facilitates this: the nation is something eternal and its values remain the same from one generation to the next. The Finns were seen as a valorous people whose emotional expression ranged from scarce to non-existent, in comparison with the uncontrolled enemy.
In spite of the supposedly common and shared grief and mourning of the Finnish people, when death came into a family, people most commonly understood it as a personal loss, not only a sacrifice for the nation. What the officials claimed to be natural to Finns and something to be proud of was often a cause of deep sorrow. The reality of military death was not avoided in newspaper death notices and other texts, but it was adapted to the expression of personal feelings.