Cultural environments of churches

Church buildings and environments represent the continuity of spiritual and material culture from the Middle Ages to the modern day. Churches are part of our shared national heritage as architectural monuments, but also as structures still used by their parishioners.

Church property and building protection

The Church Act (1054/1993), concerning the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Act on the Orthodox Church (985/2006) contain regulations on the protection of churches. The purpose of the protection legislation is to ensure that church buildings are appropriately maintained and repaired.

According to the Church Act, all Evangelical Lutheran church buildings constructed before 1917, including their fixed structures and artwork, are protected. In addition to churches, these buildings include bell towers, mausoleums, cemetery chapels and other similar cemetery buildings. The protection regulations of the Church Act also apply to the churchyard, cemetery wall and gate, and war graves. An Evangelical Lutheran church built after 1917 may also be protected. The Church Council will make the protection decisions, in accordance with the Church Act.

A parish’s decision to essentially alter, demolish or decommission an Evangelical Lutheran church building or to alter its intended purpose must be subjected to confirmation by the Church Council. If the church building is protected or has been in commission for at least 50 years, the parish must request a statement from the Finnish Heritage Agency already during the planning phase.

Furthermore, according to the Act on the Orthodox Church, churches built before 1917 are protected, including their fixed structures, artwork and churchyards. In addition, the Church Council may order churches and prayer rooms newer than this to be protected. A protected Orthodox Church or prayer room may not be demolished and no alterations that would endanger the building’s culture-historical value are allowed. Before its implementation, the decision of a Parish Council or a monastery’s board will be subject to confirmation by the Church Council, if the decision concerns the approval of a plan to demolish or make essential repairs to an Orthodox church or prayer room, or to decommission a church or a prayer room.

Both Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox church buildings, churchyards and cemeteries have often been given protection markings and orders in land use plans created in accordance with the Land-Use and Building Act. Most church environments are nationally valuable and have been listed at www.rky.fi (in Finnish). When it comes to land use planning, statements regarding church environments are given by the Finnish Heritage Agency or a regional museum, depending on their cooperation contract or a separate agreement.

Churches and their surroundings may contain sites protected by the Antiquities Act (295/1963). In addition to the prehistoric sites, the Antiquities Act protects the remains from burials and church-related activities during the historical period. The remains of buildings and structures connected to the church grounds, such as old stone walls, gatehouses, bell towers, ossuaries and mausoleums, are also under protection.  

A repair project in a protected church building

If essential alterations are planned to protected church buildings, the Finnish Heritage Agency will function as the expert authority. What construes as an essential alteration is judged separately for each case. The criteria should be discussed in advance with the head architect of the Church Council and the Finnish Heritage Agency. The Finnish Heritage Agency will provide guidance on how to proceed with the repair project, and discussions on the project may also be held at the site. Surveys and reviews are often required to support the planning. These include building history surveys and paint analyses illustrating the construction, alteration and reparation phases, and the focus and scope of these must be carefully considered.

The Finnish Heritage Agency must also be requested for a statement on the project plan or plan drafts. The Finnish Heritage Agency may require that alternative solutions be utilised or that a model or a test treatment be commissioned. The Agency will also provide instructions on how the documentation and reporting must be realised. During the work site phase, the Finnish Heritage Agency will provide aid if necessary. The communication will usually be done with the main designer.

In a repair project, the need for an archaeological survey and documentation must also be assessed. In matters pertaining to the Antiquities Act, a research or a disturbance permit might be required.  In churchyards, the archaeological cultural heritage must be taken into account when conducting work that requires more extensive excavation than regular grave digging, for example, pipe and cable trenches (see Land use and archaeological sites). Archaeological monitoring at the site will be negotiated separately, and a regional museum’s archaeologist, for example, may function as the overseer.  

Cemeteries maintained by parishes

Cemeteries are usually maintained by parishes. Old cemeteries are typically located next to churches, whereas newer ones are often located separately. If a churchyard area is to undergo notable changes, the parish is legally required to request a statement from the Finnish Heritage Agency. Similar action must be taken if the change concerns a fence, wall or gate of a churchyard or cemetery, or war graves.  

The legal protection regulations do not apply to individual grave memorials located at a parish-maintained cemetery. A memorial placed at a grave cannot be removed without permission from the parish, i.e. the cemetery manager. The maintenance of an individual grave is the duty of the holder of the grave right. The parishes will manage the rest of the cemetery, including the pathways, trees, bushes and shared memorials. Gravestones untended and without holders may be removed, unless otherwise decided by the Church Council.  

A cemetery may be decommissioned and the cemetery area be utilised for another purpose once approximately 100 years have passed from the last burial. After the burials at a cemetery have ceased, the parish will often continue as the area’s caretaker.

Many church environments and cemeteries have old trees, and their replacement calls for long-term planning and the careful removal and planting of trees. Usually, a landscape work permit from the municipality, complying with the Land-Use and Building Act, is required when felling trees in a local detailed plan or local master plan area.  

Sometimes cemeteries may be excluded from maintenance. Ancient burial sites that are not within a cemetery maintained by a parish are considered stationary relics, according to the Antiquities Act (see Protection of the archaeological cultural heritage.) The graves and burial sites from the pagan era, including those without any visible signs above the ground, are also viewed as relics.