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Peter Seenan: Hietaniemi cemetery is my local escape from Christmas mania

19 Dec , 2018, 23.03 Peter Seenan

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In the shops people rush around frantically snatching products off shelves like rationing is about to begin and at Alko, I see a hobbling bent old lady suddenly stand arrow-like to wrestle a 24-pack of beer into her trolley.

Awful covers of once meaningful songs rattle off temporary walls, a not subtle reminder from retailers to continue shopping; to celebrate the opportunity to gift someone you love with yet more unneeded stuff.

In offices there’s panic as if things that don’t get done by the holiday will be forever left undone, their futility exposed by a snap arbitrary deadline imposed from above.

The trams that screech up Mannerheimintie are packed. People sit squashed against the tram walls drowning under their own bags. They grimace, but stare silently into their phones scrolling and scrolling.

Welcome to the final shopping days before Christmas, when we’re drawn out of the darkness by the gaudy brightness of shop displays like unsentinent moths flapping wildly around a lightbulb.

Like the day before half a dozen flag days, it feels as if madness has gripped Finland.

Shoppers stuff products of no utility into baskets thinking of the hilarity that will greet their unwrapping and anticipate a rush, which will turn out to be as fleeting and easily forgotten as a tobacco buzz at a drunken Pikkujoulu party.

But long after the laughter that greets the unveiling of the inflatable flamingo beer can holder dies down and the banter points expire we will still be paying for those cheap laughs.

inflatable flamingo drink holder

According to researcher Annie Leonard, 99% of everything for sale in North America will be dispatched to landfill within 6 months because it’s designed to break or has no utility in the first place.

That electric bug vacuum, the mini USB-powered fish tank, the iPhone case that smells of watermelon will be fast-tracked to a rubbish tip, after eliciting perhaps a giggle, a thanks or one or two uses before it fails or is forgotten about.

But there’s an alternative to this brain-shredding Yuletide consumption. A place. Somewhere I like to wander and catch my breath, particularly at this time of year. And it doesn’t cost anything.

If you politely elbow your way off the tram at Hesperianpuisto and walk to the far end of the street, following the light like some men in a time gone by, you’ll come to Hietaniemi cemetery

Perched above Hietaniemi beach and guarded by tall trees that feel like an ancient company of silent watchmen, Hietaniemi cemetery is a perfect antidote to the noise and pressure of manufactured consumerism and a serene place during the ten months of the year when you’re not tripping over baubles.

It twinkles into life each year on All Saints Day, not long after the clocks go back, as the long shadows of autumn make way for the darkness of winter and the leaves blow in. People congregate again on Independence Day to lay candles on the graves of relatives and the war dead, and some families return on Christmas Eve to reflect and remember before sitting down to celebrate Christmas together.

On these occasions it can feel in as much demand as Stockmann department store, but nature’s free and beautiful gifts stand in sharp contrast with the continued destruction of the natural world that powers our consumer society.

I’d recommend visiting Hietaniemi cemetery on a winter day as part of a walk that takes in the stretch of path flanking Cafe Regatta, via the crunchy sands of Hietaniemi beach as I find myself doing today. There aren’t the used needles and empty lager cans you will find in other city graveyards, nor the graffitied gravestones.

Gravestones and trees covered in snow at Hietaniemi cemetery

Trees whisper old memories, grass shivers in the breeze. A fading light cracks a slight pink smile above Seurasaari. You’ll find time for yourself.

The cemetery grows in importance for me at this time of year when it’s too cold to walk far from my home in Töölö and I feel I need to switch off from the world around me. Mindfulness, if you will. Or the polar opposite of retail therapy. 

I’ll roll down here after a big Sunday lunch for the last drops of daylight and the kind of refreshing breeze that makes me feel alive and ready for the week ahead. Sometimes I’ll go for an ice swim and sauna afterwards in an unassuming place nearby. Hietaniemi blows away the cobwebs gathered from too much time spent indoors or hunched over a laptop.

I don’t much like November and December in Helsinki, but Hietaniemi cemetery I like in the cold months of winter when walls of darkness press in hard on every side and I’m seeking a glimpse of sunlight, even if it’s just to watch it disappear over the horizon.

Here, everything has taken its place over hundreds of years. The people lie still, it’s serene, and the continuity in a world of constant change provides a sense of certainty and freedom to pursue your own path.

It’s also a retreat from social media with its faux outrage, mob politics and constant interruptions. A world of Trump and permanent uncertainty caused by human-made destruction of the planet. Of online rage and public humiliation available at your fingertips every second, of bad news you’re impotent to solve.

At Hietaniemi my mind is instantly cleared of ugly Christmas earworms and jarring musical homages to a little donkey whose purpose no one cares to remember.

In the end we lie beside our enemies and friends and nothing much will change that. No matter what you achieve or don’t achieve, no matter the gifts you buy or don’t buy, you’re still going to end up in the ground like most other people in this land, and I find this way of thinking is liberating.

At Hietaniemi cemetery, the words of the Scottish author, Richard Holloway are never far from my mind:

’And the years blow away like leaves in the wind.’

It’s a tender and pragmatic reminder of the transitory nature of life and in a year during which I lost my Grandmother it reminds me to more carefully choose how I spend my time, especially at Christmas.  

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