I recently visited Groningen in the Netherlands for the Mortuary Archaeology Today conference where I delivered the keynote talk entitled Cremation Past and Present. Following the conference and workshop, there was a fabulous tour for delegates of the South Cemetery of Groningen led by Karla de Roest. I rely very much on her excellent excursion notes for this discussion of Zuiderbegraafplaats incorporating comments from J. M. M. Hermans and Annika Kropp.
The cemetery was opened in 1827 following an epidemic affecting Groningen, motivating an early version of a trend that was spreading across early 19th-century Europe of extra-mural cemeteries replacing urban churchyards. It is one of two new cemeteries constructed outside the city walls (one north, one south) and was built on higher sandy soils to facilitate rapid decomposition.
This was my first visit to an historic Dutch cemetery and I didn’t quite know what to expect.
The rectangular cemetery plot is laid out in a simple, regular rectilinear fashion. There is a central WSW-ENE pathway through the cemetery, with regular north-south burial plots running north and south from it. Ancillary NNW-SSE paths run perpendicular from the main artery, marking divisions in the cemetery.
The entire cemetery was immaculate, and clearly the municipal authorities and volunteers do an amazing job to retain its character.
One approaches through a single eastern entrance with a variety of warning signs and iron gates. The incongruity of the Commonwealth War Graves with a ‘no dogs’ sign is noteworthy.
Inside, there are foundation gravestones commemorating the cemetery itself with distinctive memento mori symbolism and a common motif of Dutch graves rarely found in Britain: the butterfly.
The tree plantings are varied but individual trees intersperse plots. There are no avenues or clusters of trees.
In terms of layout, striking for me was the choice to not arrange the cemetery according to both religion and class, as is often the case in Britain (where Conformist vs. Nonconformist burial areas often frame cemetery space). Instead, a strict class hierarchy for burial was established, with no less than 5 divisions initiated – A-E – running in order back from the road, with ‘first class’ burials in the most prominent position beside the road and entrance and initially pauper burials at the far west (later reused for modern graves). Therefore, currently the cemetery embodies a status and chronological arrangement and some of those in the first row of the first class section proudly assert this. Yes! They actually state ‘first class, 1st row”!
I was also interested in the only contrast to the regular arrangement: more recent graves placed on the very edges of the cemetery were orientated NNW-SSE. This represents a later expansion of the original burial area.
Another notable feature is the magnitude of the shed used to manage the cemetery – a modern and awesomely monumental feature in itself.
What of the gravestones? I think I’ll explore these in more detail in a subsequent blog. Still, in general terms, as one might expect in the UK, there is a bewildering variety in the gravestones and memorials from the 19th century through to the most recent graves at the far west of the cemetery.
Overall impressions are:
- the amount of ironwork railings around graves was markedly contrasting with most British suburban cemeteries where few retain ironwork;
- as in British cemeteries there is a mixture of gravestones and ledgers, but a far larger number of ledgers in this cemetery were raised up in prominent fashion like low version of chest tombs, often tilted so the text can be discerned, rather than low on the ground surface;
- Gravestones are of similar overall height to British ones, but there are far more examples of very narrow, tall gravestones;
- The amount of colour differs to British cemeteries: letters and ornament are widely painted black, and some red, a feature never surviving (or found) in the UK;
- as mentioned above, the common use of butterfly symbolism is starkly in contrast to Britain, where they are hardly ever used as a symbol of regeneration/resurrection.
Moreover, the dominance of one particular tomb, the Scholten family’s, which utilised 27 plots to create a family tomb, stands in contrast to the generally low nature of most graves. Few British cemeteries embody such a contrast and allow such a ludicrous exhibition of family identity over other graves (although Victorian cemeteries do have a handful of obelisks and other prominent tombs).
Collective memorials are also noteworthy. There are two distinctive collective memorials: the First World War Commonwealth War Graves to British Royal Navy personnel are arranged around a central focal ‘Celtic’ cross.
Yet the second collective memorial is different from anything one would find in the UK. It marks the victims of a rail crash on 16th October 1940 (when a train hit a bus) and allows individual memorialisation within a collective coherent arrangement.
Overall, a thoroughly enlightening visit and a wide range of features of layout and memorial forms that show both similarities and differences to 19th/early 20th-century cemeteries in the UK.
In a second blog post, I’ll focus more on the individual gravestones and their motifs.