I’ve been trying to think of ways to write about my brief visit to my first Dutch crematorium. I got the chance to visit Groningen crematorium in April 2018 after attending the Mortuary Archaeology Today symposium.
There were so many dimensions the crematoria’s architecture and landscape share with British and other crematoria I’ve encountered. First up, the entrance was framed by a site-sign, gates and a signpost. So far so familiar…
There were plenty of trees framing the site, and a large canal defining its borders. Yet there was also a mature woodland area allowing scattering and burial amidst the trees and by the lake.
There was also a garden area with cremation burials set around the edges up against hedges. This was familiar, but I hadn’t seen any before set up against banks and raised areas: but then again the Dutch particularly like there landscaping…
Also, there was a cruciform columbarium of some magnitude with a central water feature. The individual niches have the appearance of modular IKEA bookshelves, while the roofing protects them from most of the elements.
There were also lawns for ash-scattering and modest-sized memorials around the edge. The focal point here was a pond with memorial walls to receive small plaques set behind it.
A secluded child’s burial area was also a familiar component.
All of these features were set around the cremation buildings, seemingly a pair of chapels set with a lake and fountain evoking the avian ascent of the human soul upon cremation.
Yet again, there were a series of materialities and features that were markedly different from anything I’ve seen in the UK. Now, I haven’t seen all crematoria in the UK, and I haven’t seen any other Dutch crematoria to compare this against. Therefore, my observations might be misleading and I invite comments on my observations: additions or correctives. Notwithstanding, I’ve decided to write a series of short blog posts identifying different features that stood out from my British perspective.
First up: ‘exposed urns’. In Sweden, Denmark or the UK, I haven’t seen the confidence of crematoria to allow urns to sit exposed and accessible, both in a columbarium arrangement, and on individual cremation graves. Columbaria I’ve seen in Sweden have glass locked doors to allow access by mourners only. Outdoor cremation graves everywhere tend to have offerings on the grave, but not the urn itself! These are usually interred and covered over by a plaque or other marker.
So my surprise was to find the standard columbarium arrangement at Groningen allows open-access to urns of all manner of size, shape and colour, placed in niches together with flowers and other offers.
Whilst most cremation graves have plaques and other memorials, a significant minority are part of the on-ground display. Having just published a co-authored article advocating the possibility that early Anglo-Saxon cremation practices might have involved long-term curation of burials in urns or bags above ground in mortuary houses, this contemporary exposure of urns struck me. It is to my knowledge unprecedented from a UK perspective. The dead are not ‘gone’: but there, accessible and tangible through their urns as part of the arrangements – headstone/plaque, flowers and offerings.
So for some in the Netherlands, open access urns are perfectly acceptable. The crematoria is well-guarded and there is CCTV to prevent vandalism, yet even with these surveillance elements, I found the trust and openness of these arrangements powerful and distinctive.