A wide range of memorials types, but also a diverse spectrum of material cultures, adorn graves of the cremated dead in the Netherlands today. In a previous post I identified the distinctive (from my perspective) display of urns in columbarium and upon graves in the grounds of a Dutch crematorium. While not ubiquitous, I suggested this created a very different and unusual relationship with the ashes of the departed, in stark contrast to practices in the UK. A range of idiosyncratic material cultures are deployed to forge relationships between the living and the dead, as with this wonderful owl-dominated assemblage.
Of the many materials and substances utilised to frame cremation graves, many mirror practices found in the UK. Flowers, fairies and ornamental birds and beasts didn’t surprise me. A welcome absence was gnomes. Still, I was intrigued by two distinctive practices.
First up, there seemed to be a relatively large volume of Buddhas on display, certainly more than might be deemed usual in a UK context. I presume (but don’t know for sure) that this isn’t indicative of South and East Asian immigrants, and more to do with the broader associations of the Buddha in relation to Western death and popular culture.
Second, was the widespread use of the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection and deployed upon multiple child graves, the entrance to the child’s cremation area, as well as situated on what appear to be the graves of adults. As in the example above, they are found with the Buddhas. While the plastic medium is very 21st century, the form is actually integral to Dutch mortuary symbolism back to at least the 19th century, as shown at the Groningen South Cemetery. This is completely different from the UK context where butterflies are rare.
So butterflies and Buddhas for me encapsulated the distinctiveness of the Groningen crematoria’s wide repertoire of mourning material cultures. Butterfly symbolism has deep roots in ‘traditional’ Christian burial symbolism in the Netherlands, while Buddhist symbols have actually become more prominent than overtly Christian iconography upon graves: I hardly saw any crosses or crucifixes reflecting the secular nature of modern cremation and the society practising it. Together, an adapted tradition and an Eastern spiritual influence, these two material themes encapsulate the complex multicultural and multifaith influences on present-day cremation practices.