A Beacon in Historical Darkness: The Medal Worn on the Grave

Tucked away in the church cemetery of a southern Swedish village is the gravestone of a civil servant who died in 1902. It would go unnoticed as the average grave of an ordinary man were it not for one remarkable feature: the shining silver medal embedded and encased in glass within the gravestone. All but forgotten and facing the scrap heap, the gravestone symbolizes the overlooked beauty and value of everyday history.

By Victoria Martínez

More than a century after he received it, Karl Hultberg[1] still wears his civil service medal with pride. In life, he only had a week to enjoy it, so someone decided that, in death, he should wear it in perpetuity. But instead of being buried with Hultberg’s mortal remains, the medal was placed in a custom glass-encased hollow in his gravestone. Here, like Snow White in her glass coffin, the silver medal has remained preserved and beautiful since 1902.

Without the medal, it would be a gravestone like any other in the quiet church cemetery of Hovmantorp in southern Sweden. As it stands, it is an extraordinary sight; one that affords a glimpse of history in situ. Peering through the glass, the light shining through from the other side, struggling to see the fine details of the medal through the condensation inside, it’s impossible not to wonder how and why it came to be preserved in this way. Or perhaps not.

This remarkable historical artifact is just one church council decision away from possible destruction. Even perpetuity, it seems, has an expiration date.

The exceptionally unusual gravestone of Karl Hultberg in the Hovmantorp (Sweden) church cemetery. The yellow sign at the base indicates that the grave rights will soon expire, putting the gravestone at risk of destruction. Personal photo.

With no family to claim care and ownership of the grave, the rights to the site will soon revert to the churchyard, and the remains of Hultberg, and the wife, son, and daughter-in-law who predeceased him will be disinterred.[2] Unless the gravestone is recognized as culturally important, it will be discarded.

A local widow with a connection to the Hultberg family described how, as a district judge, churchwarden, and county councilor, Karl Hultberg’s words held great weight within the community. Now, the man once honored for his lifelong commitment to public service in Hovmantorp with the Silver medaljen för medborgerlig förtjänst (Silver medal for civil service) is all but forgotten. The honor so keenly felt that it was carefully placed in his gravestone is a barely-regarded relic with a neglected history. And, with the death of Hultberg’s great-grandson, Karl Stellan Hultberg, in 2013, no family member can be found to insure the preservation of this unique monument to his memory.

A memorial profile of Hultberg from the August 17, 1902, issue of Swedish weekly magazine, Hvar 8 Dag. Courtesy Project Runeberg.

Today, Hovmantorp is a small community of slightly less than 3,000 people, and the largest of the four localities that comprise Lessebo Municipality. It’s part of an area known quite delightfully as Glasriket – the Kingdom of Crystal[3] – for its long history of traditional glassmaking. Lovers of expensive art glass might recognize the area as the home of Kosta Boda. In the nineteenth century, however, it was at the heart of what was dismally called mörkaste Småland – darkest Småland.

Hovmantorp, like most other towns in the province of Småland, was characterized by the dual extremes of rural poverty and religious conservatism. While all of Sweden was experiencing mass emigration to the United States from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries, emigration from Småland alone accounted for 300,000 of the 1.2 million who emigrated to America.[4] The province lost a quarter of its population to emigration between 1850 and 1920.[5]

Born in 1832 in the village of Herråkra, Karl Petersson Hultberg would have come of age right as this period of emigration was beginning. But instead of emigrating, he settled 16 miles away in Hovmantorp, where he married a local woman, Helena (“Lena”) Carin Svensdotter, sometime before 1859. They made their home in an area called Tollstorp, and had at least seven children.

Hultberg’s standing in the community appears to have been cemented by 1867 when he began an 11-year term as a church warden for Hovmantorp Parish. Between 1877 and 1885, he served as an elected official in the municipal government, first as chairman of the municipal board (kommunalnämnden) and then as vice chairman of the municipal meeting (kommunalstämman), which was the highest municipal authority at that time. By 1902, he was a county councilor (landstingsman) in Kronoberg County, a position that would have given him authority and influence beyond Hovmantorp.[6]

Of all Hultberg’s titles, however, one stands out as especially meaningful – the one that appears after his name on the back of the medal: “C. Hultberg, Häradsdomare.” This was an honorary title given to the longest-serving member of a district court, and it signified a lifetime of service to the community.

Detail of the back of the medal. Personal photo.

This local honor was amplified when the Swedish government granted Hultberg the medaljen för medborgerlig förtjänst. Meant to be pinned on the chest from a blue and yellow ribbon, the version of the medal Hultberg received appears to be the eighth size in silver (SMmf8) and bore the image of King Oscar II of Sweden in relief on the front.

The front and back of a Silver medaljen för medborgerlig förtjänst in the eighth size, like the one Karl Hultberg was awarded. Courtesy Medalj.nu.

But it’s unlikely Hultberg ever had a chance to wear the medal, at least not in public. When he died on July 24, 1902, he was in the hospital in Växjö, around 17 miles from Hovmantorp. By horse-drawn carriage, the most likely means of transportation, the journey would have taken at least a couple of hours, making an “emergency” trip or short-term stay in the hospital unlikely. Aged 69 at the time, it’s more likely he was being treated at the hospital for an illness when he died. If so, it’s possible he received the medal while in the hospital.[7]

Karl Hultberg was buried in the cemetery of Hovmantorp’s beautiful 19th century neoclassical church on July 31, 1902. Whether Hultberg himself had asked for the medal to be placed in his gravestone or someone in his family made that decision after his death is unclear. It’s possible the credit belongs to his only surviving son, Johan, who had worked alongside his father for many years.[8] It is also not clear whether an existing gravestone already in place for Hultberg’s wife, son, and daughter-in-law was retrofitted, or a new one was created specifically to house the medal.

Soon, it may not matter. If the gravestone is discarded, a piece of history will be lost, never to be discovered by a chance walk through a church cemetery or even a purposeful encounter in a local museum.

The problem is not one of insensitivity. It’s a problem of loss of memory, knowledge and interest. Few remain who remember a man who was once a pillar of his small, rural community. Historical records are sparse and reveal very little. Perhaps most tragically, we have become a society that seems to prefer our history as an easily-discovered, suitably-dramatic, and rapidly-digested consumable.

Karl Hultberg’s history is none of these things. He was just an ordinary man – a good one, by all accounts – who was rewarded for a lifetime of hard work and dependable service to his community. It is a story that represents every ordinary person who hopes that, one day, they will be publicly recognized as someone who spent their life being a fundamentally good and honorable human being. In a century, the history of people like this will be as important to remember and preserve as Karl Hultberg’s is now.

This exceptional gravestone has the potential to stand not just as a memorial to Karl Hultberg, but also as a monument to the countless other everyday people of history whose contributions to society deserve to be remembered and honored.


[1] His name appears on the gravestone as “Karl Hultberg,” and genealogical resources reference him as Karl Petersson Hultberg. However, most historical records use the spelling “Carl.” Even on the medal, the initial “C” is used for his first name. I have chosen to use the spelling as it appears on his gravestone.

[2] Swedish grave rights are held in title for specific terms that may be renewed. If they are not renewed, the grave rights return to the principal owner of the burial ground (i.e. the church). When a title holder of grave rights dies, the title may be passed to a designated individual. However, it is often the case with older grave sites that no such individual is designated or comes forward following the death of a previous title holder. In these cases, if a claimant to the grave rights is not located, the grave rights return to the principal, and the site is cleared. More information on current legislation related to burials in Sweden can be found in English here (PDF).

[3] Glasriket in Swedish, which translates to “The glass realm,” but is more often called the Kingdom of Crystal in English.

[4] McKnight, Roger. Introduction. The Emigrants. By Vilhelm Moberg. 1949. Minnesota: Borealis Books, 1995.

[5]The Emigrants from Småland, Sweden. The American Dream.” Ken Sawyer (PDF)

[6] I am grateful to Lage Andersson at Hovmantorp church for contacting an individual with a connection to the Hultberg family and passing on the information in this paragraph.

[7] The timing of the award is according to a brief memorial profile of Hultberg (pictured) that appeared in the August 17, 1902, issue of Swedish weekly magazine, Hvar 8 Dag.

[8] Interestingly, Johan Hultberg (1863-1952) was later awarded the gold medal for civil service. His grandson, Karl Stellan Hultberg (1922-2013), was the last person to hold grave rights for his great-grandfather’s plot.


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