Burning a loved one's body yourself a gray area in Estonia

Liivia Trolla's funeral pyre.
Liivia Trolla's funeral pyre. Source: "Pealtnägija"

When 71-year-old Liivia Trolla died two years ago, her five children granted her final wish and burned their mother's earthly remains in the family farm's yard. While cremating a dead body by yourself might come off shocking and even illegal, current affairs show "Pealtnägija" found out that it is not prohibited as such.

This video was filmed in late November 2021 when a giant bonfire was burning in the yard of a farm in Karula National Park, with the people nearby letting off fireworks and cheering. Lying on the pyre was the body of Liivia Trolla who had lived on the farm.

Photography student Lauri Trolla and his sister and three brothers, the best-known among whom is likely artist Heiki Trolla or Navitrolla, set about granting their mother's final wish of a pyre funeral following her departure.

Lauri Trolla told ERR's "Pealtnägija" that their mother had started suspecting health problems around Christmas 2020. A month later, the family learned that mom had inoperable cancer. Liivia Trolla died nine months later.

Lauri said that his mother had been talking about a funeral pyre and for her ashes to be spread under an apple tree in the yard or thrown in the river where she used to go fishing as a child for years.

"She did not like Estonian cemetery culture at all, at least not how it was practiced in her family and the area – it rather caused people to fall out, the main point of contention being who visited last, who left candles lying around and whose turn it is to go next. She did not want her children to come and wail over her grave."

The Trollas had no experience or know-how of such things. While a pyre funeral is an ancient tradition, associated these days with Estonian neopaganism, there are no laws regulating it, nor is the service offered by any funeral home.

Martin Kulp, head of legal for the Ministry of Regional Affairs, admitted that the Cemeteries Act does not directly treat with pyre funerals. "But it does say that the person's religious affiliation needs to be considered if possible after which you have sanitary and environmental requirements. /.../ It is a matter of considerable environmental impact and in some cases also one of morals and ethics," Kulp said.

Experts say that the law is quite detailed when it comes to describing what happens in cemeteries and how internment funerals must be performed. For example, human remains can only be buried at official cemeteries, just as there are detailed technical requirements for crematoriums, down to their chimneys' ash particle density. But cremating a deceased yourself and what to do with the ashes remains a gray area. The law makes mention of a dignified sendoff, while what that means is up to individuals to decide.

"The law does not regulate this aspect. It is not really characteristic of our funeral culture," Kulp said.

The Trollas took courage from knowing that the body of well-known Estonian witch and healer Aleksander Heintalu, also known as Vigala Sass, was also burned on a pyre eight years ago. Unconfirmed reports suggest neopaganism followers have also done it since. By the time their mother died on November 29, 2017 after her nine-month struggle with cancer, the children had decided to hold the funeral and burn her body at home. While an ambulance was called to record the time of death, the body was not sent to the morgue.

"We did not remove her from home. Because it was late November, which is already a cold time, we simply opened the windows. We prepared a kind of base like an open casket. We moved the bed outside and placed her in it. We applied makeup and made her look good ourselves. My brother built the casket and the fire. My other brother organized the funeral, called relatives, while others had further tasks to perform," Lauri Trolla described.

A pyre funeral is no simple matter as the human body is not a very flammable object. And because such things are kept on the down low, information is hard to come by.

"I do not recommend simply throwing the body on a pile of twigs and lighting it on fire without prior knowledge. That will get you nowhere. You need to know what you're doing if you want several dozen kilos of flesh to burn to ash. We sourced instructions for how to build a funeral pyre from the dark web so to speak and followed them in building a massive, passenger car-sized fire," Trolla said.

Liivia Trolla died in the wee hours of Sunday, while the ceremony was held already on Monday.

"First, we had an official sendoff where all friends, acquaintances and relatives were welcome. But we did not invite everyone to stand beside the pyre. You never know how people might behave. Only close relatives and a few locals were present for that," Liivia's son recalled.

Lauri Trolla, who studies photography at the Pallas Art School, recorded a video of the event. Fire was set to the pyre by the deceased's children. The participants sang songs and sent their mother on her last journey with cheers and fireworks.

On the one hand, officials say that a pyre funeral is not allowed, while the only real obstacle is potential pollution. Nevertheless, it remains unclear what type of a permit should be sought and where. The Trollas did not have any official documentation, while eight hours after the pyre was set aflame their mother's remains had been reduced to roughly five liters of ash. The family maintains that Liivia Trolla's sendoff was very dignified, just as the law prescribes.

"We in the family feel that our funerals will not be as solemn. It was among the most dignified funerals I have ever witnessed," Lauri Trolla said.

Martin Kulp said that while that may have been the case, he hopes the family sought all the necessary permits and filled them out, which is what the law requires. "Not the Cemeteries Act, but other laws, environmental norms, which require coordination."

The children honored their mother's wish and poured her ashes into the river. The Trollas feel they have done nothing wrong. When Lauri Trolla was invited to participate in a group exhibition titled "My story was..." at the Tartu Aparaaditehas, he decided to put his mother's funeral, including the pyre on display for everyone to see.


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Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Marcus Turovski

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