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  #1  
Old 06-16-2009, 12:05 AM
Spoke Spoke is offline
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Throwing handfuls of dirt into graves: who does this?

Hollywood loves this convention: weepy relatives at the funeral line up to throw handfuls of dirt onto the coffin. It's a touching symbolic gesture, and I can see why Hollywood loves it, but here's the thing: I've attended dozens of funerals (all in the southern US) and I've never seen it happen.

So who does this in real life? Is it a regional thing? Or is it a ritual of a particular faith? Can anyone enlighten me?
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  #2  
Old 06-16-2009, 12:13 AM
Colibri Colibri is offline
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It's been a typical practice at family funerals I've attended in the New York City area. My family is Irish/German, Roman Catholic.
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Old 06-16-2009, 12:14 AM
Cunctator Cunctator is offline
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We did it at my father's funeral a couple of years ago. That was a Catholic service. It's common at other Catholic funerals that I have attended as a mourner, or at which I have sung.

Last edited by Cunctator; 06-16-2009 at 12:16 AM..
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Old 06-16-2009, 12:21 AM
Colibri Colibri is offline
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A search indicates it is also a custom at Jewish funerals.

This link mentions its use by Catholics.
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  #5  
Old 06-16-2009, 12:27 AM
Spoke Spoke is offline
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Ah. OK, thanks for the info.
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  #6  
Old 06-16-2009, 12:32 AM
Northern Piper Northern Piper is online now
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I've not seen it done by the mourners, but at an Anglican funeral service, the priest will often throw in some dust, after reading the passage about "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

The practice was set out in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer:
Quote:
Then, while the earth shall be cast upon the Body by some standing by, the Priest shall say,

FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.
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Old 06-16-2009, 12:34 AM
King Bobo King Bobo is offline
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I was ten years old when my Father died.

One of my most vivid memories is standing by his grave and being handed a "wand" (someone more up-to-date Catholic than I can likely name this instrument) and being told to sprinkle holy water over the coffin after it was lowered into the grave.

Thereafter, my Mother and all other mourners sprinkled Holy Water over the coffin.
My Mother then took a handful of dirt and dropped it into the grave. She was the only one to do this.

I have always thought that the water was a blessing for the departed and that the dispersal of dirt was symbolic for the widow/widower burying their next of kin.

This is likely an Irish-Catholic custom with which I am familiar.

I suspect the Hollywood thing is more in tune with "instant film clips" and/or "sound bites" than any real custom - though I cannot back this up with citations etc.
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  #8  
Old 06-16-2009, 12:44 AM
panache45 panache45 is online now
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We did in in the funerals of both of my parents. Reform Jews.
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  #9  
Old 06-16-2009, 12:59 AM
Cunctator Cunctator is offline
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Originally Posted by King Bobo View Post
someone more up-to-date Catholic than I can likely name this instrument
An aspergillum, from the Latin verb aspergere, "to sprinkle".
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  #10  
Old 06-16-2009, 02:09 AM
Sampiro Sampiro is online now
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My family throws roses from the coffin blanket (and sometimes children [but not our own]) into the grave after the service but not dirt. At most funerals that I've been to there's an astroturf like carpet that covers all but the open grave and no dirt to toss in.

My parents said that when they were children they didn't sprinkle dust but went a step further: at some funerals the nearest and dearest picked up a shovel and actually shoveled in a scoop of dirt (not enough to fill the grave of course, but more symbolic). I can see how it would be good for coming to grips with the reality of the death.

Last edited by Sampiro; 06-16-2009 at 02:09 AM..
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  #11  
Old 06-16-2009, 02:28 AM
King Bobo King Bobo is offline
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Cunctator,

Seems you are more observant than I am - an aspergillum is exactly the "wand" I was given. Now that you have named it, so many memories flood back- even that name.
Thanks.
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  #12  
Old 06-16-2009, 02:40 AM
Koxinga Koxinga is online now
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Originally Posted by Sampiro View Post
My family throws roses from the coffin blanket (and sometimes children . . .) into the grave . . .
How pharoanic.
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  #13  
Old 06-16-2009, 04:12 AM
Alessan Alessan is offline
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At Jewish funerals I've attended it went beyond mere handfuls of dirt; mourners were expected to work a shovel.
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  #14  
Old 06-16-2009, 04:37 AM
Mycroft Holmes Mycroft Holmes is offline
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Originally Posted by Alessan View Post
At Jewish funerals I've attended it went beyond mere handfuls of dirt; mourners were expected to work a shovel.
Same goes for Lutheran funerals in Germany. Everybody is expected to put a shovel full of dirt in the grave.

No children are put in the grave though.
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  #15  
Old 06-16-2009, 05:29 AM
Surok Surok is offline
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We did this yesterday - the grave where my great-grandmother's, grandfather's, and grandmother's ashes were interred was opened so we could bury my uncle's ashes.

Whoever opened the grave placed a stump of wood by it, with a mound of soil on - maybe ten handfuls or so. After we placed my uncle's ashes in the grave, we all threw a handful of dirt in.

I'm guessing that the cemetery (which is rarely used for new burials) knows that this is done by some religious denominations, so they make sure the option is available.
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  #16  
Old 06-16-2009, 07:39 AM
panache45 panache45 is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Alessan View Post
At Jewish funerals I've attended it went beyond mere handfuls of dirt; mourners were expected to work a shovel.
For my more Orthodox relatives there was shoveling, and a lot of it. For my parents (Reform) there were only token handfuls.
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  #17  
Old 06-16-2009, 08:51 AM
robby robby is offline
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I've been to several funerals in the last few years, in different parts of the country (three in Texas and two in Massachusetts). None of them involved actually observing the casket being put into the ground. There was a wake/visitation at the funeral home, service at the church, and a final ceremony at the cemetery. At this point everybody went home.

I'm told that it is thought to be "too traumatic for the family" to actually watch the casket being put into the ground. So no handfuls of dirt, either.
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  #18  
Old 06-16-2009, 09:05 AM
Eva Luna Eva Luna is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Alessan View Post
At Jewish funerals I've attended it went beyond mere handfuls of dirt; mourners were expected to work a shovel.
Likewise. Even the frail elderly have gotten up to wield a shovel at the Jewish funerals I've been to. I actually like the custom; I feel like it provides closure.
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  #19  
Old 06-16-2009, 10:13 AM
hotea1313 hotea1313 is offline
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Originally Posted by panache45 View Post
For my more Orthodox relatives there was shoveling, and a lot of it. For my parents (Reform) there were only token handfuls.
I wasnt paying much attention at my grandfather funeral but we did shovel in part of of the dirt. my family is orthadox and he was reform. baruch hashem I haven't been to any other lately.
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  #20  
Old 06-16-2009, 12:43 PM
Anaamika Anaamika is offline
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I'm surprised more people don't. We cremate, but even then the eldest son is supposed to light the pyre. (No, I don't now what happens if there are no sons.)
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  #21  
Old 06-16-2009, 01:13 PM
choie choie is offline
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Yes, very common in Jewish families, at least all the ones I know here in NY. Usually it's the shovelling task. This surprised me when I first encountered it at age 19 -- at my mom's funeral -- and though I didn't think I could handle it, I took part. The sound of the dirt is very hollow and final. And when the immediately family were through with our shovels-ful, the rest of the family finished filling the hole in themselves. It ended up feeling like a communal, supportive experience; the family taking care of interring their own loved ones, rather than groundskeepers who feel nothing for the body. By the time my pop died six years ago, I knew what to expect and this time I managed more than one scoop. And again, the sight of my cousins, uncles and brother in law filling in the rest of the grave was bizarrely comforting. And yes, it also provides some sense of closure. To a degree.

Of course many many people don't particularly care what happens to a coffin-covered dead person -- they understandably feel that by that time, whatever you loved about the individual is gone. I'm sort of that opinion myself. Still, part of me is still attached to those gravesites, and I visit them occasionally today. The fact that I and those who most loved my mom and pop were the ones who physically and literally placed the earth above them feels somehow significant and comforting. It's a connection; part of the process of saying goodbye.
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Old 06-16-2009, 01:19 PM
Sampiro Sampiro is online now
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I'm surprised more people don't. We cremate, but even then the eldest son is supposed to light the pyre. (No, I don't now what happens if there are no sons.)
I watched a documentary on cremation in which it said that today, when most cremations are done with lasers, the oldest son lighting the pyre has been updated to the oldest son pressing the button that begins the process. I like the continuation of tradition but it must lose something without an actual torch.

My family has the tradition of putting rocks on graves when we visit a cemetery. Some years ago it was changed from rocks to pennies or small coins after visiting Ben Franklin's grave (on which people toss pennies), but it's the same principal- something to show the grave has been visited. I didn't realize until I saw Schindler's List that this was a Jewish custom. This and the fact that my parents both recalled "shoveling" funerals make me wonder if there is some kind of Jewish influence in Deep South customs.

Last edited by Sampiro; 06-16-2009 at 01:20 PM..
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  #23  
Old 06-16-2009, 01:48 PM
Chronos Chronos is offline
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I've been to several funerals in the last few years, in different parts of the country (three in Texas and two in Massachusetts). None of them involved actually observing the casket being put into the ground. There was a wake/visitation at the funeral home, service at the church, and a final ceremony at the cemetery. At this point everybody went home.

I'm told that it is thought to be "too traumatic for the family" to actually watch the casket being put into the ground. So no handfuls of dirt, either.
When my grandfather was buried a few years ago (western PA), the professional gravediggers seemed surprised that the family took part. We carried the coffin up the hill to the grave site ourselves, and loaded it into the contraption that lowers it into the hole. We did all toss handfuls of dirt into the hole, along with some sprinkles of blackberry brandy Granpap had homebrewed many years back.
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  #24  
Old 06-16-2009, 03:31 PM
Olentzero Olentzero is offline
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I did it for my maternal grandfather, and was the only one to do so. I think the groundskeepers were a little surprised but they had no problem with it. It did help a little with closure for me.
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  #25  
Old 06-16-2009, 03:35 PM
KneadToKnow KneadToKnow is offline
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So, nobody else whips out an automatic rifle, empties the clip into the coffin and shouts "You'd better stay dead, motherf&cker!"?

Must just be my family.
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  #26  
Old 06-16-2009, 03:45 PM
Nava Nava is offline
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Originally Posted by robby View Post
I'm told that it is thought to be "too traumatic for the family" to actually watch the casket being put into the ground. So no handfuls of dirt, either.
Huh, here in Spain it's considered sort of a necessary "closure" step; one reason many people give to prefer burial (be it in a niche or a grave) to incineration is that being able to carry the coffin to the grave and put it in (or just to watch that happen) feels more "real." My cousin died last year in the Himalayas, his body was left there; on one hand this is very fitting given how he lived and died, but on the other one of the things his mother repeats again and again when she gets to wailing is that "it's bad enough to lose a child, but I never got to bury him."

Dirt graves are rare here, so no dirt throwing. We were in the sligthly-over-100 years old cementery where my family's pantheon is and we noticed a couple of dirt graves, both recent. Normally there's a "box" of concrete, granite or marble.

Last edited by Nava; 06-16-2009 at 03:46 PM..
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  #27  
Old 06-16-2009, 04:03 PM
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Huh. I've been to several funerals, most of them Roman Catholic, and we've never done this. Not only that, but I've also never witnessed the casket actually lowered into the grave. It would be help up over the grave by the straps, and lowered in after the mourners have left.

Last edited by bouv; 06-16-2009 at 04:03 PM..
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  #28  
Old 06-16-2009, 04:09 PM
Spoke Spoke is offline
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Originally Posted by choie View Post
Yes, very common in Jewish families, at least all the ones I know here in NY. Usually it's the shovelling task. This surprised me when I first encountered it at age 19 -- at my mom's funeral -- and though I didn't think I could handle it, I took part. The sound of the dirt is very hollow and final. And when the immediately family were through with our shovels-ful, the rest of the family finished filling the hole in themselves. It ended up feeling like a communal, supportive experience; the family taking care of interring their own loved ones, rather than groundskeepers who feel nothing for the body. By the time my pop died six years ago, I knew what to expect and this time I managed more than one scoop. And again, the sight of my cousins, uncles and brother in law filling in the rest of the grave was bizarrely comforting. And yes, it also provides some sense of closure. To a degree.
Yes, I like the idea of this sort of ritual. It does sound comforting. It's a shame it isn't generally practiced in these parts.
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  #29  
Old 06-16-2009, 05:58 PM
DocCathode DocCathode is offline
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Another Jew here. The mourners putting dirt onto the coffin has been part of every funeral I've been to. I'm told that at Orthodox funerals, the mourners actually fill in the entire grave rather than just tossing symbolic dirt.
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  #30  
Old 06-16-2009, 06:22 PM
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Originally Posted by Sampiro View Post
This and the fact that my parents both recalled "shoveling" funerals make me wonder if there is some kind of Jewish influence in Deep South customs.

Not quite the deep South, but my relatives from the hills of Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia, both Catholic and Protestant, did the shovel thing. Some of the older relatives from the midwest did this as well.

I think that it's a custom that used to be fairly common across the board, but has been lost in some cultures / regions / religions and not others.
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Old 06-16-2009, 06:33 PM
ShibbOleth ShibbOleth is offline
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So, nobody else whips out an automatic rifle, empties the clip into the coffin and shouts "You'd better stay dead, motherf&cker!"?

Must just be my family.
Must just be your family. In ours, a stake through the heart will typically suffice, although we do occasionally need to remove the head and bury it separately.
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Old 06-16-2009, 07:21 PM
Hokkaido Brit Hokkaido Brit is offline
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I'm told that it is thought to be "too traumatic for the family" to actually watch the casket being put into the ground. So no handfuls of dirt, either.
Don't come to Japan then. You get to experience everything up close and personal here. When the person dies they are brought home (if they died elsewhere) for a night and the family sits around the body for a wake. Then the next day the body is washed by the family (everyone participates even if it's just a ritual swipe) and dressed in a white kimono and put into the coffin (they are in futon with a cloth over their face up till then.) Then they go to the funeral place (temple or commercial hall) for another night in which the family also sit with the deceased. Though at that time you can't see them as they are in the coffin behind a big screen of flowers. Then the next day is the funeral. THe coffin is opened and flowers are placed in, then the cover replaced and each person pounds in one nail. Then they are taken to the crematorium and cremated while the family waits. Finally the body is brought back out as bones and the family use ceremonial chopsticks to break the bones up and deposit them in the urn. Then the urn is taken back to the temple for a final ceremony.

Oh, did I say final?? There are ceremonies a week, 49 days, 1 year, 3 years, 7 years, 13 years etc etc later!! By the time you see the person into the urn you are beyond sad and distressed and well into "can't wait to see the back of them" territory!

But it seems to be a human need to have some part in the final disposal of a loved one, as there seems to be some kind of dirt-tossing, hammer-nailing, body-washing or dressing ritual in many cultures.
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  #33  
Old 06-16-2009, 07:35 PM
panache45 panache45 is online now
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Originally Posted by KneadToKnow View Post
So, nobody else whips out an automatic rifle, empties the clip into the coffin and shouts "You'd better stay dead, motherf&cker!"?

Must just be my family.
You must be related to me . . . definitely on my father's side.
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Old 06-16-2009, 07:57 PM
KneadToKnow KneadToKnow is offline
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Originally Posted by ShibbOleth View Post
Must just be your family. In ours, a stake through the heart will typically suffice, although we do occasionally need to remove the head and bury it separately.
Oh, yeah. Orthodox.

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You must be related to me . . . definitely on my father's side.
Did you inherit the receding hairline and the penchant for inappropriate humor, too?
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  #35  
Old 06-16-2009, 10:47 PM
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Must just be your family. In ours, a stake through the heart will typically suffice, although we do occasionally need to remove the head and bury it separately.
If I learned anything from The Night Stalker, it's that you have to pour salt in the mouth and sew the lips shut, just to be sure.
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Old 06-16-2009, 11:27 PM
ShibbOleth ShibbOleth is offline
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I wondered what we were doing wrong. Not getting much sleep around here at night lately. Very big, spooky objects bouncing against the windows and such. Thanks for the tip.

Last edited by ShibbOleth; 06-16-2009 at 11:27 PM..
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Old 06-16-2009, 11:44 PM
Apollyon Apollyon is offline
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I'm told that it is thought to be "too traumatic for the family" to actually watch the casket being put into the ground. So no handfuls of dirt, either.
Hmm... when my paternal grandfather died his was the first cremation funeral I'd attended, and after the chapel service the coffin was sort of rolled away out of sight never to be seen again; it felt weird and lacking closure to me.

The previous two (both maternal) grandparent's funerals I'd attended that year (it was not a good year) had graveside ceremonies and coffins lowered into graves etc.

My memory is a bit hazy, but I'm pretty sure we dropped flowers (and quite possibly handfuls of dirt) onto Nana's coffin... for Granddad it had been fern fronds, which IIRC had something to do with freemasonry (his coffin also had the caliper and squares on it and there were freemason representatives present).
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Old 06-17-2009, 01:36 AM
Olentzero Olentzero is offline
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Did you inherit the receding hairline and the penchant for inappropriate humor, too?
Ah, you're Swedish too?
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