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Dossier thématique

Long Farewell: Bureaucracy of Transnational Death in (Post)-Mortal Practices of Russian-Speaking Immigrants in Finland

De longs adieux : la bureaucratie de la mort transnationale dans les pratiques mortuaires des immigrés russophones en Finlande
Largas despedidas: la burocracia de la muerte transnacional en las prácticas mortuorias de inmigrantes de habla rusa en Finlandia
Olga Davydova-Minguet et Pirjo Pöllänen
p. 53-76


L’article analyse les confusions générées par les démarches bureaucratiques liées à la mort que doivent effectuer les immigrés russophones résidant en Finlande, dans les zones frontalières. Le décès de leurs proches met les migrants en contact avec des fonctionnaires à différents niveaux, tant dans leurs localités de résidence finlandaises que dans leurs localités russes d’origine. Ces exigences bureaucratiques sont peu familières et laborieuses, et se transforment en une expérience de « long adieu » pour ces immigrés. Ce travail utilise divers matériaux ethnographiques collectés par les autrices et les présente sous la forme d’une « histoire type », compilée à partir d’expériences variées, mais similaires, d’immigrés russophones. Les principales confusions proviennent de la numérisation des services bureaucratiques en Finlande d’une part et de la nécessité de présenter des certificats papier en Russie de l’autre, ainsi que du rôle dominant de l’église luthérienne dans l’administration funéraire finlandaise. Ces rencontres et ces expériences nous aident à mieux comprendre le transnationalisme des migrants russophones, qui semble dépendre fortement des services sociaux et des autorités à la fois finlandaises et russes, ainsi que de la détérioration du conflit entre la Russie et « l’Ouest ».

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The research has received funding from the Academy of Finland (decision n:o 339981, project Transnational death: practices of death and remembrance in the transnational everyday on the Finnish-Russian border).

1Alongside mobilities within the former Soviet space, post-Soviet migrations involve movements directed to the West. Our ongoing study focuses on the post-mortal practices of Russian-speaking immigrants in Finland, where they constitute the largest foreign-born immigrant minority. Their everyday lives are characterized by dense transnational ties and connections which are relatively easy to maintain due to the proximity of their places of origin with their places of dwelling, the existence of transnational families, and mediatized connections (Davydova-Minguet and Pöllänen, 2020 and 2021; Davydova-Minguet et al., 2019; Oivo, 2021). Due to the recent character of immigration to Finland, deaths of Russian-speaking immigrants have been relatively rare, but they are becoming more common as those who immigrated in the first waves of the post-Soviet immigration are now getting old. These deaths need to be formalized transnationally because they occur in a way in continuation of the transnational lives of migrants. As Metcalf and Huntington (1991: 25) note, “the issue of death throws into relief the most important cultural values by which people live their lives and evaluate their experiences. Life becomes transparent against the background of death, and fundamental social and cultural issues are revealed”. Compared to other European countries with a longer histories of immigration, immigrants’ death related issues are understudied in Finland. In this article through the analysis of migrants’ experiences of the bureaucratic formalization of death in a transnational Finnish-Russian context we, in addition to describing them, make an attempt to better understand the character of this particular transnational condition in its relation to societal structures.

2Through the death of a relative in the country of immigration, Russian speakers deal with the Finnish authorities and actors with whom they may not have had any relationship before. At the same time, death sheds light on the many relationships of Russian-speaking immigrants that connect them to the authorities of the Russian state across the border, namely, the social benefits they enjoy, the real estate they own, and their relationship with financial institutions. Acting according to the Finnish rules and managing bureaucratic transnational relationships takes a lot of time, creates misunderstandings and mistakes, and death becomes a process of a “long farewell”.

3The article is based on our long-term ethnographic work and interviews with Russian-speaking immigrants, undertakers, other “death specialists”, and officials involved in death and post-mortal arrangements in Finland and Russia. Our research task here is to ponder how Russian-speaking immigrants living in Finland experience post-mortal formalities and procedures in the transnational context, and how these formalities and procedures are guided by two neighbouring states. What confusions, disappointments, and gratifications evolve in the interviews of Russian-speaking migrants about their lived experiences of dealing with the bureaucracy of transnational death?

4In this article bureaucracy is conceptualized through its Weberian understanding. In general, it can be stated that in both the historical and current Finnish systems, as in the Russian and its predecessor the Soviet systems, organizations and their practices have followed the tendencies of an ideal type of modern public bureaucracy. In the Weberian bureaucracy organizations’ activities are built hierarchically, impersonally, and in accordance with pre-agreed rules. Bureaucracy is based on the standardization and hierarchization of organizations’ activities, as well as on the formalization of rules (e.g., Huhtala, 2006). In transnational death practices this ideal practice of Weberian bureaucracy is reflected in the fact that both Finnish and Russian death experts, authorities, and professionals (e.g., church, municipal and state officials) follow the pre-agreed rules of the organizations they represent based on their expertise. From the individual’s perspective Weberian bureaucracy appears as a rigid and hierarchical structure that is unwilling or unable to adapt to the individual’s wishes and demands. However, in addition to its rigidity, the Weberian bureaucratic structure guarantees in principle that the delivery of post-mortal formalities is regulated and predictable, and that the operation of the authorities is based on pre-agreed procedure. However, in a transnational situation confusion arises because of the differences between and rigidity of the two countries’ practices.

5In what follows we first introduce the context of the study, namely the post-Soviet immigration from Russia to Finland, then discuss our methodological and theoretical standpoint, and after that present the analysis of our empirical data. In concluding remarks, we sum up our analysis, and take a look at bureaucratic systems from a larger perspective of future developments.

Context: Russian Speakers in Finland and their Transnational Everyday

6“Russian speakers” form ethnically and socially highly heterogeneous group whose members originate from the countries of the former Soviet Union, mostly Russia. Numbering more than 84,000, they constitute the largest immigrant minority among the more than 444,000 people with an immigrant background in 2020 in Finland’s total population of 5,531,000 (Statistics Finland, 2021a). The immigration of Russian speakers to Finland began with the collapse of Soviet state socialism in the 1990s and the resulting changes in the border and migration regimes of Russia and Finland. Russian speakers’ immigration has since developed through several immigration channels such as the “re-emigration” (repatriation) of people of Finnish origin from the former Soviet Union; marriage migration, primarily involving Russian women; and recently, business and educational migration (Davydova, 2009; Pöllänen, 2013). Russian speakers mostly settle in Helsinki region and in other bigger cities such as Tampere and Turku, and in the eastern regions of Finland along the Russian border (Varjonen et al., 2017: 12). Those who prefer to live close to the border typically originate from the adjacent regions of Russia — the Republic of Karelia, the Leningrad Oblast, and St Petersburg.

7The immigration from the countries of the former Soviet Union first became possible for the persons of Finnish origin. The program of so-called re-emigration of ethnic Finns mostly from Russia and Estonia lasted from 1990 to 2016 and resulted in immigration of approximately 30,000 people with Finnish background and the members of their families of different ethnicities. The “paradox of re-emigration” refers to the discrepancy between the romantic image of a “culturally and ethnically same” as “us, Finns” people who were expected in Finland to come from Russia, and those who arrived and were experienced as “Russians”. Typically, only old generations of ethnic Finns in Russia and Estonia spoke Finnish, and middle-aged and young didn’t know the language. (e.g., Davydova, 2009.) Marriage migration, as well as migration through work or studies doesn’t presuppose ethnic and linguistic sameness from migrants, and those who arrive to the country through these channels supplement existing ethnic and social heterogeneity of Russian speakers.

8Most Russian speakers in Finland are first-generation immigrants and maintain transnational connections with their places of origin. Geographical proximity and relatively easy border crossings enable the maintenance of transnational families and other everyday transnational practices such as care, travel, and entrepreneurship in the spheres of tourism, trade, and linguistic services. Their employment in Finland in areas like trade, education, and healthcare often exploits their transnational connections and belongings and ethnocultural competence (Davydova-Minguet and Pöllänen, 2020; Sireni et al., 2021). The hybrid transnational mediascape connects Russian speakers with their loved ones and with media produced in Russia (Davydova-Minguet et al., 2019; Oivo, 2021). They are also targeted by intensifying Russian diaspora politics that positions them as belonging to the “Russkiy mir” (Russian world), that is, a large Russian nation divided by borders yet culturally and ideologically united (Davydova-Minguet, 2014). The memory of WWII plays an essential role in this politics (Fedor, 2017), and Russian Orthodoxy is actively involved in creating the “Russkiy mir” (Laine and Saarelainen, 2017).

9Changes in the international situation have a direct influence on Russian speakers’ everyday lives, affecting border regimes and attitudes towards Russia and Russian speakers. The annexation of Crimea in 2014, the consequent war in Eastern Ukraine, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and other conflicts disturb their sense of everyday and ontological security (Oivo and Davydova-Minguet, 2019; Oivo et al., 2021). Moreover, the closure of the Finnish-Russian border for everyday travel during the 2020-2022 coronavirus pandemic has limited their access to transnational care and family relations and enforced the meaning of mediatized transnational connections. Changes in global, transnational, and local health security situations and border crossing restrictions have also affected the transnational post-mortal practices of Russian speakers in Finland.

10Russian speakers’ position in Finland is controversial, reflecting the complicated present and historical relations with Russia as well as Finnish society’s uneasy multiculturalization and diversification. Today, foreign language speakers comprise approximately 7.5%, and Russian speakers 1.5%, of the total population of Finland. Multicultural and integration policies attempt to include them in Finnish society, but the symbolic reproduction of the Finnish nation remains strongly ethnocultural and reiterates the heroic Finnish memory of Winter and Continuation Wars (the military conflicts between the Soviet Union and Finland during the Second World War), excluding Russian speakers and other immigrants from the national popular narrative (Kinnunen and Jokisipilä, 2012; Davydova-Minguet, 2018 and 2021). Furthermore, as elsewhere in Europe and beyond, Finnish nationalist populism challenges the principles of liberal democratic society and its immigration and integration policies (Jonsson and Willén, 2017; Kotilainen and Laine, 2021). The contemporary Finnish handling and remembrance of the dead, including burials, cemeteries, and commemorations, have been influenced by the wartime practices of burying and remembering fallen soldiers in the local graveyards of soldiers’ home communities. Today’s memory politics bear these histories and are present in Finnish burial habits and practices.

  • 1 The Evangelical-Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church are defined as Finland’s state churches in (...)

11Nevertheless, there is much that is familiar to Russian speakers in many Finnish cemeteries and burial rituals, among other things because of the countries’ shared history and cultural heritage. Between 1809 and 1917 Finland was a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, and the first Russian merchants, representatives of the imperial administration, and entrepreneurs moved to Finland. The historical Russian presence is visible in the architecture of old Finnish cities and especially in cemeteries (Kurkinen, 1985). The “old” Russian minority in Finland grew significantly after the Russian Revolution with the arrival of Russian emigres, who later continued to Europe or stayed in Finland. By the beginning of post-Soviet immigration this minority had to a large extent assimilated and become “invisible” (Baschmakoff and Leinonen, 2001; Jerman, 2004). Nevertheless, the Orthodox church is the second state church in Finland, and it has welcomed the influx of new potential followers. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, the first state church1, is rooted in the period when Finland was part of the Swedish Empire, which lasted until 1809. Today, 68% of Finns belong to Lutheran parishes, and only 1% belong to the Orthodox church (Statistics Finland, 2021b). According to a recent survey (Pitkänen et al., 2019) about half of Russian speakers in Finland declare they are religious, but they are not necessarily official members of Finnish Orthodox parishes. The shared history and rootedness of Orthodoxy in the country afford common surfaces for identification and agency for some Russian-speaking immigrants. Among approximately 60,000 members of Finnish Orthodox church, about 15 % are of Russian immigrant background (see Tuominen, 2018). In addition, the Lutheran religion is not unfamiliar for Russian immigrants either, especially those who migrated to Finland as re-emigrants, membership in Lutheran church parishes becomes the way to express their religious and ethnic identity. Still, the secular worldview which has its roots in Soviet times, is wide-spread among Russian speakers. All these factors influence the everyday lives of Russian speakers to some degree in Finland, as well as how they face death as an everyday emotional, traditional, or religious occasion, and the bureaucratic frameworks and practices present in transnational post-mortal arrangements.

Methodology: Wandering and Wondering, and Constructing a Typical Story

12Our study is embedded in the tradition of narrative ethnography, which reflexively acknowledges the narrative character of ethnographic materials such as interviews, ethnographic and autoethnographic notes, as well as the way ethnographers present their research. (Heikkilä, 2021; Gergen and Gergen, 2002; Raunola, 2010; Davydova-Minguet and Pöllänen, 2021.) The way of collecting ethnographic data is inspired by the concept of drifting/dérive (Debord, 2006; Precarias a la deriva, 2009), which has been used in the study of precarious groups such as migrants and part-time workers. The concept has its roots in the Marxist problematization of the nationalized framework of social life. This methodological approach affords a loose framework for combining various ways of collecting and analysing data, while acknowledging the co-presence of researchers and respondents in physical and social spaces. In our case drifting means wandering around and wondering about the spatial surroundings (such as cemeteries and places of remembrance) connected with death and post-mortal practices, as well as among Russian speakers in their activities (e.g., in funerals and elderly care homes). The main informants were found using the “snowball method”, but many discussions happened when we participated in various ceremonies or walked around the cemeteries or other public places. We therefore define our data collection process as “wandering and wondering” — paying attention to predefined themes, but also being open to unexpected insights and confusion.

13The article is based on various materials including autoethnographic notes, notes and photographs from participant observations and interviews. We conducted sixteen semi-structured interviews with Russian-speaking immigrants who had lost their loved ones in transnational settings, and Finnish- and Russian-speaking experts from various bodies involved in the governing of transnational death-related practices (e.g., the religious authorities, undertakers, cemetery managers, lawyers). The authors and research assistant Natalia Tchekounova conducted the interviews, which lasted between one and four hours. Most were transcribed and coded thematically by authors, using manual techniques such as bolding, colouring, underlining, and margin notes.

  • 2 Here we don’t discuss cases when parent of the interviewee died in Russia or the death of an adult (...)
  • 3 Transnational Death: Practices of Death and Remembrance in the Transnational Everyday on the Finnis (...)

14The Russian-speaking2 interviewees (thirteen) had personally experienced the death of a loved one within period between two months to five years in the transnational context and dealt with the death bureaucracy on both sides of the border. Most of our middle-aged informants had lost their parent, elderly relative or spouse under different circumstances in Finland (whether it was a sudden death or a long-term illness). They were asked about their background, the course of pre-death events and the death, funerals and dealing with various officials after the death. Additionally, we discussed how death was marked in Finland and Russia. Our data also include ethnographic and autoethnographic notes from various death-related events such as funerals, commemorations, exhibitions, and so on collected since 2004. Moreover, in our ongoing research project3 we have conducted inventories of places of memory (such as cemeteries) in local surroundings in Eastern Finland and the Republic of Karelia and built a body of visual and historiographical data on its basis. The inventory data afford a basis for reflection for this article’s other ethnographic data (Davydova-Minguet et al., 2022).

15This text continues the methodological choice we made in our previous articles (e.g., Davydova-Minguet and Pöllänen, 2021; Oivo et al., 2021), namely, to construct a typical story or stories about the studied phenomena. This is grounded in several arguments. First, our ethnographic data are multifarious in nature, but still the ways that people tell about their dealing with the bureaucracy of death are quite similar, resembling complaints (Ries, 1997). Secondly, the differences between our interlocutors’ narratives concerning bureaucracy are relatively small and have not much correlation with people’s gender or socio-economic status; on the contrary, age (middle or older) and social positions of our interlocutors are relatively similar. Those who currently lose their elderly relatives or spouses are typically people who have moved to Finland after 1991, but due to the character of immigration (re-emigration or marriage) and difficulties in finding employment have remained in the margins of Finnish society (Varjonen et al., 2017; Pöllänen and Davydova-Minguet, 2017). Because of these reasons we decided to present our analysis in one constructed story of “Victor” (who could also be “Vera” as well).

16Instead of writing traditional thematic analysis and using quotations from the interviews, we have constructed the typical story of “Victor”, who represents the stories of our informants in various aspects of dealing with death and its bureaucracy in a transnational context. “Victor” cannot be seen as a real person, but nor is he fictional. He is imaginary in the sense that he does not exist as such; his story is not told by a single informant but is a thematically composed entity from our ethnographic material. The story portrays the most common encounters with authorities people have to deal with, and confusions they experience: they have to decide and negotiate how and where to bury the deceased, how to perform estate inventory in Finland, and how to officially declare person dead in Russia and claim an inheritance there. Russian-speaking immigrants feel important to perform all bureaucratic formalities on both sides of the border which proceed according to the same path, consisting of encounters with Finnish and Russian authorities.

17In writing a constructed story, we are fully aware of the politics of representation we as researchers practice. We engage in relationships with persons whose practices and life situations we study; we are aware of the context Russian speakers live in; we engage in relationships with the readers of our stories in Finland and in the international research community (Gergen and Gergen, 2002; Heikkilä, 2021). Additionally, the construct of the imaginary “Victor” arises from ethical considerations: our constructed figure and story provide our informants in sensitive situations with the best possible anonymity. Some of our materials are collected in small localities, so the stories of interviewees would remain recognisable even if we would change people’s names in quotations.

18We also acknowledge the limitations of this kind of the representation of analysis. Some details and variations in people’s lived situations can become lost. Still, the holistic understanding of a structural level can be represented in such kind of writing in the most crystallized way. Furthermore, this way of writing makes the understanding of a studied phenomenon open even to non-specialists (Gergen and Gergen, 2002; Heikkilä, 2021).

Death as a Continuum of Transnational Practices

19Dying and death, as well as post-mortal arrangements, actualize questions of belonging and continuities with individuals’ and families’ pasts and futures (Saramo et al., 2019; Jassal, 2015). Simultaneously, they involve various actors (care and health professionals, religious actors, the state and municipal authorities, the funeral industry, etc.) in the localities of immigration and emigration, thus re-enacting the relationship between individuals and state, municipal, and religious governance. Death and its bureaucracy inevitably become both nationalized and transnational in one’s experience. We approach death and post-mortal practices in their connection with place, space, and experience, viewing them as creating transnational deathscapes that involve both desires for mobility and rootedness (Hunter, 2016; Jassal, 2015; Maddrell and Sidaway, 2011).

20The transnational perspective on dying, death, and post-mortal practices and bureaucracy examines the practices migrants, their families, and communities develop to negotiate multiple belongings and identities, considering their past and present circumstances and visions of the future (Saramo et al., 2019; Jassal, 2015). Family ties, considerations of place, region, and religion, and practical reasons connected with legislative and administrative regulations condition immigrants’ decisions (Gardner, 2002; Hunter, 2016; Snellman, 2019). As in other studies of transnationalism, in the regulations and practices of death the role of national states and national actors becomes highlighted. Migrants and their families must creatively negotiate the institutional, traditional, and religious regulations of death, the disposal of the body, and mourning — the necroregimes of states and other actors (Jassal, 2015). Transnational death also affects places and events traditionally perceived as national and even local, posing questions about their inclusiveness (Björn, 2019; Björn and Karhu, 2020).

21The character of migrants’ transnationalism (also in death practices) is highly contextual, depending on the histories and character of migrations, international relations, physical and cultural distances between countries of departure and countries of destination (Glick Schiller et al., 1995). Obviously, there is difference in the organization of migrants’ death practices between Britain and Bangladesh or Spain and Morocco with long distances between the countries (Gardner, 2002; Morreras and Solé Arreràs, 2019), and in neighboring countries Finland and Russia, or Finland and Sweden (Snellman, 2019). National bureaucracies which often are incompatible, administrate deaths in transnational contexts, and the need for transnational bodies that function on democratic principles in already existing transnational spheres was clearly evoked by researchers (e.g., Fraser, 2007). Bureaucratic matters and obstacles migrants face in their everyday lives in areas of schooling, work, housing etc. in countries of settlement differ from bureaucracy in cases of death in transnational contexts — they are more routinized and quotidian, while death represents the exception from everyday, is more rear occurrence than those which are connected with the routinized upkeeping of life.

22In lived everyday experiences of Russian speakers death-related practices evolve within a continuum that usually includes life and care on the pre-death stage, actual death, the organization of the burial, and the post-mortal period when social conventions around death must be completed. In case of Russian speakers living in Finnish border areas, all these stages can involve transnationally organized practices.

23The continuum of death can be portrayed as follows:

Table 1: The Long Farewell: Continuum of Transnational Death Practices

Table 1: The Long Farewell: Continuum of Transnational Death Practices

24Transnational practices are present at every stage of the death process. At the pre-death stage the care of a dying person in Finland can be organized by inviting a relative or acquaintance from Russia to help the family cope with private care at home, thus combining family care with participation in the Finnish labour market. When dying Russian-speaking immigrants are cared for in nursing homes or homes for the elderly, relatives and family members from Russia and Finland participate in the organization of and decision making about care practices. However, concerning care, the most common transnational practice among Russian-speaking immigrants seems to be to care for elderly relatives who are left behind in Russia. This entails the organization of private care at home or in private homes for the elderly, bringing goods and medicine from Finland, and financing various medical or other actions. Moreover, the emotional care of relatives in Russia is omnipresent in Russian immigrants’ transnational everyday (Davydova-Minguet and Pöllänen, 2020).

25Concerning the organization of funerals and the disposal of the body, Finland and Russia despite their geographical closeness follow different administrative-cultural traditions which are connected, i.e., with the type of the welfare state. According to the typology of funerary arrangements in Western countries proposed by Walter (2005), Finland represents the Scandinavian model, which is institutionally religious and culturally secular. This means that part of the functions of the welfare state is delegated to the church. In Sweden, for example, the Lutheran church was part of public policy until 2000, when it ceased to be a state church. Even then the Lutheran church continued to be institutionally responsible for almost all activities associated with funerals in Sweden. Walter continues that this is a fact particularly in Sweden, where the church assumes many of the functions in funeral ceremonies that in many other countries are often provided either by private enterprises or the municipalities. In Finland too funerals are “typically held either in church, or in a chapel within a church owned cemetery or crematorium; and, if requested, the church has to provide a place, for example the parish hall, for secular funerals” (Walter, 2005). However, Walter points out that in cultural terms Scandinavian countries are predominantly secular, with low levels of both churchgoing and belief in an afterlife. Besides being a religious actor, the Lutheran church in Finland represents a bureaucratic body that performs the registration of population and administrates cemeteries.

26Mokhov and Sokolova (2020), basing on Walter’s typology argue that in post-Soviet Russia the way how funerary practices are organized is defined merely not by the considerations of religion, business or public policy, but by the “broken infrastructure”, the insufficient functioning of all stages of registering death and organization of funerals, and the consequent attitude of Russians to death, funerals, burying and remembrance as the matter that requires struggle and overcoming.

27In the next parts of the article, we analyse our empirical materials from the viewpoint of transnational bureaucracy in Finnish-Russian context.

Victor, Confused by Church Dominance in Finnish Death Bureaucracy

28When an immigrant dies in Finland, and the burial is organized there, ethnocultural and religious habits must be negotiated and somehow agreed, reconciling two national bureaucratic, cultural, and social systems (Davydova, 2005; Matyska, 2019; Morreras and Solé Arreràs, 2019). In our analysis we focus on the role of the Lutheran Church at the burial stage in the administration of death in Finland as it is experienced by Russian-speaking immigrants. Wandering and wondering about the power of the Lutheran church has arisen repeatedly in our interviews and participant observations. The confusion caused by the power of the Lutheran church that emerged in our data is conveyed by the typical story of “Victor”: 

An old immigrant woman, Raili, who had moved to Finland in the 1990s as a re-emigrant because of her Finnish descent, dies in a nursing home in a small city in Eastern Finland. Her bereaved son Victor who moved to Finland with her, had cared for her for years at home in their rented municipal apartment before her short period in the nursing home. Victor, who is already in his late fifties, must decide where and how to bury his deceased mother. Should he cremate the body or bury it in a grave? Should his mother be buried in Finland or in Russia? The situation is complicated by the closure of the Finnish-Russian border due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Victor decides that it would be easier to bury his mother’s remains in their Finnish hometown cemetery.
Victor is unfamiliar with how funerals are organized in Finland — he doesn’t know where to start, or how to proceed. He is accustomed to the Russian way to bury the body within three days after death, but now he is disoriented, he doesn’t know which authority he should contact, does he need any official certificate about the death in order to start funerary preparations. Victor receives some instructions from the nursing home but doesn’t completely understand them. Although he manages everyday matters in Finnish, he finds administrative Finnish too difficult. He asks for help from his Russian-speaking friends, who like him have “re-migrated” to Finland based on their Finnish descent and have lived in the country for more than two decades. Some of them have already gone through the deaths of their parents and can give some advice. He is told that the official burial permit is already digitally put by the nursing home’ doctor “to the system”, and he can start the preparations without any other official papers.
Victor visits an undertaker with one of these friends. The undertaker doesn’t speak Russian or English, but they manage to choose the coffin and clothes for his mother. He chooses the cheapest coffin and clothes (costing approximately one thousand euros), and transportation of the coffin to the venue of funeral ceremony. Although the price looks high for him, he is already told about the burial allowance that municipal social services provide for persons of limited means and that covers burial expenses up to one thousand euros and guarantees a decent burial.
Next, he has to choose a place for a farewell event. He wants to organize a secular ceremony in a beautiful place. Some years ago, Victor attended his acquaintance’s funeral which was held in the chapel situated in the same building as the city’s crematorium on the cemetery in the centre of his hometown. He wants to hold his mother’s farewell event in this dignified place. He also decides to cremate the body of his mother — that’s why the farewell ceremony in the same building seems right.
When Victor meets the manager of the cemetery in his hometown in Finland, he receives a rather cold reply: it’s impossible to hold a secular funeral ceremony there. The manager turns to be an employee of the Lutheran church, and he is also responsible for the renting of the chapel adjacent to the city crematorium that is owned by the municipality and Lutheran and Orthodox parishes together. Victor still wants to hold the farewell in this place and asks if it would be possible to invite a priest to meet the religious requirements. After all, he considers Lutheranism to be part of the Finnish tradition, which he respects and keeps close to him through his Finnish mother. He receives the reply that it will be possible in this case. Then he asks if the coffin can be open during the ceremony — he wants to see his mother for the last time, and he is accustomed to this from today’s Russia and from Soviet times. The cemetery manager answers that they are not used to this custom, and the coffin should be kept closed, especially with the current coronavirus pandemic. He also adds that the attendees must be limited to a small number. Victor, who is already quite confused, bereaved, tired, and doubtful about his ability to express himself and understand his interlocutor, gives up and decides to arrange the ceremony in the small chapel of the regional hospital. This room is small and very simple. There is only one Lutheran cross on the wall, with an Orthodox icon close to it. The ceremony can be secular, musical equipment should be brought by him, and the coffin can remain open, despite the pandemic restrictions.
The farewell ceremony for Raili is eventually organized three weeks after she passed away, which feels a long time for Victor. Only a few of Victor’s Russian- and Finnish-speaking friends participate in it. His relatives from Russia decided not to come although it would be possible despite the restrictions. A representative of the undertaker is also present, even if he doesn’t participate in the ceremony: he waits for its end in order to take the body to the crematorium located inside the cemetery. There, the place for the grave is already chosen: Victor signed a twenty years rental contract with the same employee of the Lutheran parish who denied him the right for a secular farewell ceremony in the chapel adjacent to the crematorium. The body is cremated in a few days and the ashes are given to Victor, who then puts them to the small grave together with an employee of the crematorium.

29The funeral procedure in its basic form is quite similar in Finland and Russia, but the governance of burial and cemeteries differs. In Finland the disposal of a body is based on the health protection act (FINLEX, 1994) and the burial act (FINLEX, 2003a). The burial act provides for the burial and cremation of the human body, the treatment of ashes, the establishment, maintenance, care, and liquidation of cemeteries and private graves, and the establishment of a crematorium. The role of the Lutheran church as one of the main authorities in the burial sphere is derived from the legislation on the state churches (Lutheran and Orthodox). Historically, the power of the Lutheran church is based on the Scandinavian model and the long historical administrative and cultural ties with Sweden. Moreover, it is legitimized by the fact that the majority of the population of Finland belongs to it. However, Finns are seen as a somewhat secular people, and their religiosity as merely habitual and cultural rather than ideological.

30The burial act imposes several general obligations concerning funerals: the body must be buried or cremated without undue delay; the body and ashes must be treated in a dignified manner that respects the memory of the deceased; the burial and cremation of the body and the handling of the ashes must respect the views and wishes of the deceased. The same law declares that “Evangelical Lutheran Church parishes or parish unions have an obligation to maintain public cemeteries. A cemetery can be shared by several parishes or parish unions” (FINLEX, 2003a: § 3). The Orthodox church, state, municipality, or a coalition of municipalities may also maintain cemeteries. In practice, most Finnish cemeteries are maintained by the Lutheran church; in a few exceptions they are maintained by a municipality. The Lutheran dominance is very visible: the cemeteries are usually situated around churches or in proximity to them. If the Lutheran church is geographically distant from the cemetery, there is a Lutheran chapel at the latter, and crosses are visible in fence decorations and so on. In these cemeteries, there may be separate sections for Orthodox or secular graves. At the same time, these cemeteries are public, so those belonging to other faith communities, or who do not belong to any church, may be buried in them (Heng, 1994: 94-95).

31The Lutheran church is therefore a public policy actor alongside the state, regional, and municipal authorities. However, being a Finnish citizen does not presuppose membership of the state churches or any other religious organization. The state churches are autonomous but part of the public policy authorities: for example, they have the right to levy taxes. The state provides legal orders and a juridical framework for other public policy authorities, and the burial procedure in Finland is delegated to the Lutheran church. Our data represented in Victor’s story suggest that Lutheran church workers sometimes find it difficult to separate their theological ethos from their position as state authorities in matters concerning burial (e.g., who can use certain places for burial ceremonies).

32The symbolic, political, juridical, and everyday power of the Lutheran church in Finland differs from the contemporary Russian post-Soviet context, where the church is separate from the state authorities, and cemeteries are owned and maintained by municipalities (N 117-FZ, 2021; see also Mokhov and Sokolova, 2020). The funeral procedure usually consists of the farewell ceremony held in a municipal or private funeral hall; in case of a religious funeral the blessing of the body can be performed there, in the church, or on the cemetery; and the burial at the municipal graveyard (Davydova, 2005). Although Orthodox crosses, churches, chapels, icons, as well as Muslim stars and crescents and other religious symbols, have emerged in Russian cemeteries, the power of religious organizations is in the first place cultural and symbolic, not administrative. The present Russian state is still separated from religion; nevertheless, the post-Soviet period has witnessed the proliferation of both “traditional” (mainly Orthodox Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, and Jewish) and “new” religions and religious organizations. Although they are proclaimed as equal, the Orthodox church has been overwhelmingly supported by the state authorities. However, the Orthodox church does not have a juridical mandate like that of the Lutheran church in Finland (Kääriäinen, 2001).

  • 4 Discrepancies between cultural and religious habits of majority and minority populations concerning (...)

33Although the Lutheran church’s authority in Finland is based on legislation, its unavoidable involvement and visibility in the process of burial arouses confusion, questions, and hesitation in those individuals or families (i.e., with immigrant background) who wish to respect the deceased by organizing a secular ceremony or a ceremony based on some other religious tradition.4 Why does the Lutheran church ‘order’ what constitutes a respectful burial in my family? Why does it govern places for farewell ceremonies, although they could be owned by Lutheran and Orthodox parishes and the municipal authorities on an equal basis? Why is the entire funeral ceremony called a “blessing” (Finnish siunaus) (Davydova, 2005)? Our study’s data suggest that the contemporary multicultural condition of Finland’s society poses questions that call for a reassessment of the position of religious actors in the realm of the administration of death. In Finland legislation on the integration of immigrants is described as among the most multiculturalist in Europe; however, immigrants’ lived everyday contains demands to assimilate with unquestioned elements of Finnish life presented as universal customs, language, and practices (Saukkonen, 2020). The societal structures, which are seen as universal and neutral by the majority appear national-cultural in the perception of those who for any reason do not fit the national mainstream tradition (Puuronen, 2011).

34When we raised this theme in our conversations with undertakers, they said they were very familiar with this challenge and wanted to establish commercial private halls for funeral ceremonies, but the burial act did not allow this. The legislation on burial guarantees the tidy maintenance of cemeteries, which Russian-speaking immigrants view as beautiful, orderly, and pleasant, and as preventing the unnecessary commercialization of burial. However, this legislation inhibits the development of this sphere by non-religious or non-public commercial actors, as has happened in the “old” immigration countries (Walter, 2005; Balkan, 2016).

35A cemetery manager interviewed in a small municipality in Eastern Finland told us that the beautiful old church he managed at the cemetery was open to the funeral ceremonies of the Lutherans and Orthodox and other faith communities, as well as the municipality’s secular population. It is likely that the move to more open and multicultural burial requires not legislative adjustments but a reassessment of the modus operandi. Russian-speaking immigrants are not a uniform group regarding their religious beliefs, but the ideology of secularism can be seen as a cultural treat having roots in the Soviet past. Their as well as of other cultural minorities presence in Finland demands adjustment from employees of the Lutheran church who perform the function of a public, supposedly neutral, authority.

Victor, on the Quest for a Pathway in the Swamp of Post-Mortal Bureaucracies

36The death of a person requires a substantial effort from the remaining members of the family to follow and complete all the Finnish and Russian states’ bureaucratic requirements. In transnational conditions confusion arises because of the differences between practices in Finland and Russia (e.g., death certificates and the digitization of services). Making the daily lives of individuals liveable can be overshadowed by such rigid bureaucratic practices. Studies of the changes of the Finnish administrative system highlight processes that are associated with the proliferation of neoliberal governance — for example, the diminishing of personnel and the hollowing out of welfare services, especially in densely populated areas (Tedre et al., 2016). Nevertheless, the principle of good governance is cherished and promoted by the Finnish public authorities at various levels. The key features of these principles are demands for egalitarian, deliberate, and objective treatment.

37Studies of the Russian bureaucratic system focus on the shift from the Soviet to the contemporary Russian system of governance and conclude that “bad governance” is a fundamental feature of the system. This results in the acceptance of corruption and oversized bureaucratic systems and complete distrust in governance (Gelman and Zavadskaya, 2020). However, Mokhov and Sokolova (2020) observe that the contemporary Russian system of care for the dead has its roots in the Soviet bricolage system, in which the state nominally takes responsibility, but which is in practice a peculiar local combination of state, local authorities, and private entrepreneurship, which remains unaccountable and continues the Soviet tradition of DIY funeral arrangements.

38In their transnational everyday lives Russian-speaking immigrants in Finland face the realities of Finnish and Russian bureaucracies because they often hold dual Finnish and Russian citizenship. Since 2003 the Finnish Nationality Act has allowed the acquisition of Finnish citizenship without the requirement to renounce one’s previous citizenship (Oivo and Davydova-Minguet, 2019), and dual citizenship has since become a widespread practice among immigrants. While in Finland the introduction of a possibility of the acquirement of Finnish citizenship without the demand to refuse the previous, was seen as a means for better integration of immigrants and multiculturalization of the society, for Russian speakers the preservation of Russian nationality after getting Finnish citizenship had primarily practical meaning. It allows travelling to Russia without the need to arrange visas. Russian-speaking immigrants often own property, usually apartments and/or summer cottages, in Russia. The continuation of economic and social citizenship allows them to use Russian health services and social benefits (Kemppainen et al., 2022). People who have immigrated to Finland as adults and have worked in Russia usually claim pensions from Russia and receive them in their Russian bank accounts (sometimes hiding them from Finnish authorities). These circumstances bind them to the Russian state, and death and inheritance issues need to be documented and arranged not only in Finland but also in Russia, even if the deceased is buried in Finland.
“Victor”s’ story continues by illustrating the “double burden” of transnational bureaucracy:

Victor is obliged to make his mother’s estate inventory deed in Finland, although she didn’t possess any property and left only few hundred euros on her bank account. Because he is unemployed and receives income support, and there is no assets on his mother’s Finnish bank account, he can obtain help from the public legal aid office. The estate inventory deed has to be done within six months after the death happened. Some weeks after his mother’s death and funeral he visits the public legal aid office and is instructed about the required documents. One of the documents, a Finnish extract from the population register that discloses his mother’s inheritors, can only be ordered from the Digital and Population Data Services Agency via the internet. The registry office that functioned in his Finnish home city was closed during the coronavirus pandemic, and all registration services are now only electronic. If his mother had been registered as a member of one of the state churches’ parishes, the certificate concerning the family relations of the deceased person could have been acquired from the local vicar’s office. For many days Victor struggles to order the register extract online. All the instructions are in Finnish, Swedish, and English and are difficult to understand. He must then wait four weeks until the certificate arrives by post. Additionally, to obtain the estate inventory deed in Finland, he must get the official certificates about his deceased mother’s possessions abroad — the Russian apartment and her pension assets in the bank.

39In the transnational situation, from Russian-speaking immigrants’ perspective, confusion arises in Finland because official registers and dealing with the public authorities have become increasingly digital in recent years and are available mainly electronically in banking services, taxation affairs, or applying for social benefits. This has resulted in dealing with the authorities becoming faceless and (even more) impersonal, and asking for advice demanding and challenging. Yet Finnish registers are comprehensive, and all the necessary information is usually at officials’ disposal.

40At the same time the Russian authorities often accept only paper documents with official stamps as official documents, while in contrast, paper documents like death certificates are difficult to obtain in Finland nowadays. Moreover, Russian speakers are surprised to find that the official population register in Finland is maintained not only by the state but also by the state churches. This leads to confusion about where to obtain official documents. Members of Lutheran and Orthodox parishes receive their register statements from their own parish, and those belonging to other denominations, or who are secular, receive documents digitally from the Digital and Population Data Services Agency.

Raili was registered as a permanent resident in both Finland and Russia (although she lived in Finland) and received pensions and social benefits from both countries. In Finland, the payment of social benefits stops immediately when the health authorities inform the population register, social authorities, and banks of a death. In Russia the information must be provided to the various authorities personally, backed by various documents (such as death, birth, and marriage certificates), usually within three days of the death. Victor succeeds in informing the Russian pension fund by phone from Finland, but the number of his Russian native town’s social services is always busy, so he postpones providing this information until he can travel to Russia.
Victor drives to Russia in order to handle the bureaucracy of his mother’s death some months after her death and funeral, which is already too late (and suspicious) according to Russian regulations and customs. The delay is due to the slow organization of funerals and bureaucratic procedures on the Finnish side and the coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions. Victor knows that now he can visit Russia only once a year, because he has no family members on the Finnish side of the border anymore. According to the new Russian rules as a Russian citizen he can travel from Russia back to Finland only if he has family members there or to receive medical treatment. His Finnish citizenship is not a sufficient reason for Russian border authorities because Russian legislation does not recognize multiple citizenship, but Russian border authorities consider him only Russian citizen. He must plan his visit very carefully.
Victor decides to go to Russia with the medical death certificate given to him by the Finnish nursing home where his mother died. He knows that the Russian authorities will require a Russian certificate, which could have been acquired at the Russian consulate in Helsinki, but decides to try to get it in his native town on the Russian side of the border: the journey to the Russian consulate in Helsinki is too long and expensive; the border crossing point with Russia and his native town is much closer and more familiar. His native town on the Russian side is situated in a few dozen kilometres from the border crossing point.

41Russian citizens living permanently abroad must be registered at Russian consulates. In Finland these consulates are in Helsinki, Turku, and Mariehamn, all in Southern and Western Finland. There is also an embassy office in Lappeenranta in Eastern Finland. But those Russian speakers who live close to the border usually prefer to remain registered in their Russian birthplaces and obtain Russian passports and other documents there. In the case of death, however, obtaining an official Russian death certificate without the actual body is difficult, and to get everything in order on the Russian side, the death certificate must be obtained in Helsinki. In addition to travel, this requires an official translation of a medical death certificate from Finnish to Russian by an authorized translator — which may be slow and expensive. The lack of official death certificates from people who come to Russia to undertake post-mortal arrangements was a major problem according to our interviews with Russian layers. A Russian notary with experience of dealing with such matters told us that those clients who live in Finland often either did not know about this requirement or neglected it, thinking it would be negotiable, which our informant said it was not. When in Finland Russian speakers prefer to obey the rules and regulations; in Russia they revert their habits and try to arrange matters informally. They feel the Russian regulations are tortuous and try to sidestep them by reducing their contact with the Russian authorities whenever possible.

When Victor arrives in his native town in Russia and tries to obtain a bank statement for his mother’s account, he learns that this is impossible without the official Russian death certificate, which he should have acquired from the Russian consulate in Helsinki. The completion of an estate inventory deed in Russia is also impossible without this paper. Moreover, without this official document he cannot get funeral support from the Russian state, which corresponds to approximately one hundred euros. In his situation this could compensate for some of the expenses for the tombstone he plans to order in Russia and bring to Finland — a common practice among Russian-speaking immigrants, who are very aware of the differences in prices between Finland and Russia.

42To summarize the transnational post-mortal bureaucracy through Victor’s narrative, the situation can be described as follow:

Victor only has a Finnish death certificate with him, which needs to be officially translated and authorized in Russia. This is quite complicated to organize and is expensive. The death occurred too long ago. He is advised to start the matter of inheritance without the official death certificate at the local court. To handle his issue, he must hire a local lawyer, because the notary refuses to undertake it — the case is too old. The juridical process to prove his mother’s death lasts for months, and after the certificate is acquired he must initiate the estate inventory with the local Russian notary to get Raili’s apartment registered in his name and receive the money from his deceased mother’s bank account.
Victor’s mother died about a year ago, but the bureaucratic process on both sides of the border is still incomplete. Victor says that on the Finnish side the bureaucracy is more comprehensive and flexible. In contrast, handling these issues on the Russian side is complicated by the need to be present and deal personally with various authorities. He suspects Russian officeholders are biased, belonging to the networks of interpersonal relations in a small town, and if he has irritated one of them, capable of making things even more difficult than they are already.


43We leave Victor’s narrative deliberately open in order to show the unpredictability and complexity of managing death bureaucracy, as well as long, seemingly endless time the transnational bureaucracy takes in cases of deaths of Russian-speaking immigrants. In a letter to the editor published in November 2021 in Finland’s main national newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (Niskanen, 2021) the author demands that the deaths of foreign citizens occurring in Finland be reported digitally to the authorities of the state of the deceased person by the Finnish authorities. Currently, this information is only shared between the Finnish and Swedish authorities, and the author claims this situation discriminates against those who are not Swedish or Finnish nationals. When a foreign national dies in Finland, and their relatives are unable to get the official information about the death from the Finnish authorities, it creates a difficult and distressing situation for the bereaved relatives in their country of birth. In our opinion this letter conveys the expectation and even demand for a transnationalization of bureaucracy from those affected by mobilities and institutions with a transnational influence (Fraser, 2007). Indeed, digitalization makes this possible, and the transnationalization of the bureaucracies of death may be one path for future development (at least in case of the EU countries).

44However, as our article and Victor’s story indicate, in real life the bureaucracies of two different states with different legal-administrative regimes and even political ideologies complicate this task. There are plenty of reasons rooted in historical, cultural, administrative, religious, and political developments, as well as in practical matters, that make exchanges of information or other cooperation in matters of transnational death between neighbouring countries challenging. On the one hand, the problem is a lack of political will and mutual distrust on both sides of the border, but on the other, Victor and his friends also benefit from a situation in which states do not know everything about their transnational belongings, possible properties, and social benefits. Additionally, in the light of deepened crisis in EU-Russia relations the future doesn’t seem bright, and the contrary development towards even more rigid practices is likely.

45It seems that the change in the administration and performance of post-mortal practices takes place merely through the processes of commercialization and individualization that are typical features of the global neoliberal turn (Walter, 2005). These processes are common in both Finland and Russia, and they are easily recognizable in the organization and paraphernalia of funerals, in cemeteries, and in cultures of remembrance. Within last thirty years Finland has experienced fast multiculturalization of its society. Our study indicates the need to critically reflect how Finnish death administration and funerary industry take into consideration Finland’s multicultural population. Especially the dominance of the Lutheran church in the administration of funerals seems to remain unquestioned and largely approved among those who have been grown up in the Finnish context, but from the perspective of persons with transnational background it may look like forced religification. The digitalization of public services in Finland on the one hand makes the movement of information within and between the administrative bodies smooth, but on the other hand, it diminishes and hollows out personal contacts between immigrants and civil servants, thus making difficult to get personalized understandable information. Consequently, people have to rely on their networks which may be weak and shallow. The funerary contractors also are often unprepared to meet bereaved with the non-Finnish background, and they may feel that the funerary legislation precludes their initiatives to meet the needs of multicultural society by commercial means. To summarize, in birth and death, life’s pivotal moments, migration and transnational connections illuminate to what extent multicultural, equal, tolerant, and ready to change societies are.

46The attitudes of Russian-speaking immigrants towards Russian authorities abroad have been distrustful (Byford, 2012). Death requires large contacts with the authorities representing Russian administration abroad and in the places of origin of migrants. In case of Russian-speaking migrants ever worsening relations between Russia and the “West” are felt as potentially making their position in the eyes of Russian authorities even more fragile. In the context of Finnish-Russian migrant transnationalism and more widely, it seems the deteriorating conflict between “the West” and Russia is in a manner of speaking restoring the atmosphere to that of the Iron Curtain.

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1 The Evangelical-Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church are defined as Finland’s state churches in the Church Code (FINLEX, 1993) and in the Act on the Orthodox Church (FINLEX, 2006). This also includes congregations and chapters of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church and congregations, and monasteries and convents of the Orthodox Church (see

2 Here we don’t discuss cases when parent of the interviewee died in Russia or the death of an adult child.

3 Transnational Death: Practices of Death and Remembrance in the Transnational Everyday on the Finnish-Russian Border (2021-2025), project No 339981, funded by the Academy of Finland; additionally we use ethnographic materials collected for the MATILDE-project (Migration Impact Assessment to Enhance Integration and Local Development in European Rural and Mountain Regions), which has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870831.

4 Discrepancies between cultural and religious habits of majority and minority populations concerning burials have been studied largely in so called old immigration countries such as Britain, France, Germany and Netherlands (Gardner, 2002; Hunter, 2016; Jassal, 2015; Morreras and Solé Arreràs, 2019; Balkan, 2016; Kadrouch Otmany, 2016).

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Titre Table 1: The Long Farewell: Continuum of Transnational Death Practices
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Référence papier

Olga Davydova-Minguet et Pirjo Pöllänen, « Long Farewell: Bureaucracy of Transnational Death in (Post)-Mortal Practices of Russian-Speaking Immigrants in Finland »Revue européenne des migrations internationales, vol. 39 - n°1 | 2023, 53-76.

Référence électronique

Olga Davydova-Minguet et Pirjo Pöllänen, « Long Farewell: Bureaucracy of Transnational Death in (Post)-Mortal Practices of Russian-Speaking Immigrants in Finland »Revue européenne des migrations internationales [En ligne], vol. 39 - n°1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 17 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Olga Davydova-Minguet

PhD, professor of Russian and Border Studies, University of Eastern Finland, Karelian institute, Joensuu Campus P.B. 111, 80101 Joensuu, Finland;; olga.davydova-minguet[at]

Pirjo Pöllänen

PhD, researcher in Social Policy, University of Eastern Finland, Karelian Institute, B.O. Box 111, 80110 Joensuu, Finland;; pirjo.pollanen[at]

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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