Background Increasing incidence of diabetes has been reported in many countries and the disease burden related to diabetes to be distributed unevenly across the population. Patients with lower socioeconomic position have been reported to have higher diabetes prevalence, higher rates of diabetes related complications and excess mortality. This study examined trends in gender, age and socioeconomic differences in the burden of diabetes mortality in the Finnish population aged 35-80 and potential years of life lost (PYLL) due to diabetes. Methods The data consist of an 11% random sample of Finnish residents in 1987-2007 and an 80% oversample of persons who died during those years. We examined diabetes both as underlying and contributory cause. We calculated age-specific and age-standardized diabetes death rates by gender and socioeconomic position using the direct method and PYLL due to diabetes related deaths for 2004-2007. Results Diabetes related mortality was higher among older Finns. A clear and systematic socioeconomic pattern was detected among both men and women: the higher the socioeconomic position the lower the mortality. The contribution of diabetes to PYLL was 8% among men and 6% among women. Among women, the contribution of diabetes to PYLL was lower in higher socioeconomic groups, whereas among men, the contribution was similar in all socioeconomic groups. Conclusions In order to further reduce the burden of diabetes a better treatment balance to prevent diabetes complications would significantly decrease the burden of diabetes mortality. Use of underlying and contributory causes of death is useful in monitoring trends and sub-group differences in the burden of diabetes.