Danes reject the idea of an afterlife

All dressed up and no place to go – after the funeral, few Danes believe that they are off to meet their maker, study shows

"Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return." So says scripture, and 71 percent of Danes accept that as fact, according to a recent poll. When asked what happens after death, only 16 percent of respondents said that they believed that they would be reunited with any sort of god, and just 12 percent said they believed in reincarnation.

The questions concerning life and death were posed to 2,000 Danes in a survey conducted by the Palliative Knowledge Centre.

“I am surprised that so few have a religious framework in understanding what happens when we die,” Helle Timm, the head of the centre, told the Kristeligt Dagblad newspaper. “The answers suggest that many Danes apparently have a very pragmatic and literal picture of what happens.”

Timm said that accepting that the body decomposes after death did not necessarily preclude believing in an afterlife and that the survey could be used as a starting point to discuss spirituality with the respondents.

Bispebjerg Hospital’s pastor Karsten Flemming Thomsen said that Danes tend to look more toward the earth than the heavens when facing death.

"What matters to people is how they die and whether they will be allowed to die with dignity,” he told Kristeligt Dagblad. “It's not so much about existential considerations.”

Thomsen that when he talks with terminally ill patients and their families, he attempts to “humanise death” while leaving the door open for spiritual conversation.

“My conversations do not include the question of whether one will go to heaven or hell,” he said.

Charlotte Chammon, the pastor of Nørre Herlev parish church outside of Hillerød, believes the responses could be a result of how the questions were asked.

"I talk to many who believe in 'something' – they just cannot define exactly what it is," she said. "And that is good enough. None of us can define precisely what is on the other side beyond god's promise to take us in his hand."


Mogens Balling is head of Landsforeningen Liv og Død, a humanitarian organization that works to assure that people have that chance to bid a dignified farewell to life. He said that it is important for Danes to open up about the process of death and dying.


"Denmark has no culture of talking about death or about what might happen afterward,” he told Kristeligt Dagblad. “But it is valuable for a family to know what someone believes in if they someday will be called upon to arrange a burial ceremony.”

Balling said it gives survivors a sense of peace to know whether the deceased believes they are going to god or will be reincarnated as an earthworm.

Knud Larsen is a funeral director in Frederikssund and accustomed to discussing life, death and the afterlife as part of his work. He said that how one feels about life’s biggest mystery often depends on the situation.

“Are they young or old? Healthy or dying?," he asked. 'If you asked 2,000 Danes who were actually facing death right now, you might get completely different answers.”

Indeed, the study indicated that the closer one is to checking out, the more likely they are to believe there is something awaiting them. Respondents over the age of 70 were more likely to believe in an afterlife than younger people.

Larsen said that, in his experience, the belief in life after death often brings peace to the dying and those left behind.