In this third post, I consider how the modern cemetery of Rhijnhof, Leiden, affords small and miniaturised spaces for honouring the present-day cremated dead. As I’ve argued in print, modest recently in my co-edited 2017 book Cremation and the Archaeology of Death, these modern choices regarding how cremation affords possibilities for small, discrete and distinctive burial plots and memorial envioronmentss, is a phenomenon of our world that is underinvestigated and which archaeologists have much to offer in evaluating. Moreover, it is a feature of the contemporary past that provides insights and analogies for cremation practices in the human past.

As with my discussion of Groningen crematorium, I was struck by the Dutch provision of above-ground and columbaria spaces that are open to the elements in a fashion never found in the UK. Yet in contrast to Groningen, there was no ‘woodland’ area, and no elaborate lawn with focal memorial walls and pond. Instead, as this was a crematorium and cemetery, the inhumation and cremation plots were juxtaposed in the same environment. I found a child burial area (kinderhof), but no distinctive lawn area for scattering the ashes of infants, in contrast again with Groningen. There seemed to be:

  • cremation burials in family graves;
  • small traditional grave-plots with headstones or ledgers;
  • cremation burial plots with ledgers;
  • columbaria;
  • memorial wall adjacent to the columbaria

First up, here are some of the cremation burial plots. As well as horizontal ledgers, there are ones propped at c. 45 degrees, as well as miniature gravestones. As at Groningen, I also witnessed examples of above-ground cinerary urns marking the plot.

There were other, smaller memorial forms in front of the columbaria (below).

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As an extension to the columbaria, I was also struck by the mulit-coloured, but coherent, design of the memorial wall.

Yet the most striking and distinctive feature of Rhijnhof was the columbaria. What struck me most about the columbaria is that it was even more open-access than at Groningen’s. Rather than a fully covered internally-facing cruciform space, at Rhijnhof there were a series of wooden walls with niches facing out over the cemetery grounds on the western, back-side, of the cemetery, with curvilinear canopies sheltering the niches from the worst of the elements.

Fronting these were benches, sculpture and fountains. I’ve never before witnessed such a simple, structure, whose archaeological signature would be simply a line of posts, create a striking, large and versatile facility for depositing and commemorating the ashes of the cremated dead.

A further striking feature of this arrangement is the choice of wood as the principal material for construction. Hence, the structure cannot tolerate candles being lit in the niches given the risk of fire. Hence, in a somewhat ironic fashion, this was the first time I’ve seen fire extinguishers and warning signs against lighting candles in an open-air cemetery! The cremated dead face the risk of reignition!

In a future post, I’ll reflect on the urns in the columbarium section in some more detail.

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