Grave Thoughts

It being a lovely day in Copenhagen yesterday I decided to go for a long walk. My destination was the famous Assistens Kirkegård which is in the Nørrebro district of the city. You might think that was a rather morbid choice of place to go for a stroll in the sunshine, but actually it’s not that way at all. It’s actually a rather beautiful place, a very large green space criss-crossed by tree-lined paths. We British have a much more reserved attitude to cemeteries than the Danes seem to have, at least judging by yesterday; joggers and cyclists pass through Assistens Cemetery at regular intervals, and many people were having picnics or just sunbathing between the gravestones.  And of course there were many tourists wandering around, myself included. I found this matter-of-fact attitude to the dead rather refreshing, actually.

Incidentally, I was also surprised to see a number of Jewish burials among the Christian ones. I don’t know if this happens in British graveyards.

Part of the attraction of Assistens Kirkegård – the name derives from the fact that it was originally an auxiliary burial place, outside the main city, designed to take some of the pressure off the smaller cemeteries in the inner areas – is the large number of famous people buried there.  The cemetery is extremely large (about 25 hectares), and the maps don’t show the locations of all the famous people laid to rest there, but I did find quite a few.

Here for example is the memorial to one of the most famous Danes of all, Hans Christian Andersen

Going by the number of signposts pointing to it, this must be one of the most popular sites for visitors to the cemetery, along with the grave of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. One can also quite easily locate the memorial which marks the last resting place of Niels Bohr and various other members of his family:

But it’s not only Danes that are buried here. There’s a corner of one plot occupied by a number of famous American Jazz musicians, including pianist Kenny Drew and, most famously of all, tenor saxophonist Ben Webster whose gravestone is rather small, but clearly very well tended, no doubt by a Danish jazz lover:

Unfortunately, I was unable to locate one of the graves I wanted to find, that of the great Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior. I was surprised to find his name was absent from the main index. I know he was cremated and his ashes buried there, and I even found a picture of his memorial on the net, but the cemetery is so large that without further clues I couldn’t find it. I’ll have to go back on a subsequent visit after doing a bit more research.

It’s very interesting that some of the smaller graves are extremely well-tended whereas many of the more opulent memorials are in a state of disrepair. My ambition is to be forgotten as quickly as possible after my death so the idea of anyone erecting some grandiose marble monument on my behalf fills me with horror, but I have to say I do find graveyards are strangely comforting places. Rich and poor, clever and stupid, ugly and beautiful; death comes to us all in the end. At least it’s very democratic.

And after about three hours strolling around in the cool shade of the trees in Assistens Kirkegård the thought did cross my mind there still seems to be plenty of room…

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5 Responses to “Grave Thoughts”

  1. Assistens Kirkegård is special in that the city wants it to be used as a recreational, i.e. park-like, space, as well as cemetery. Lauritz Melchior is probably not that well known, which might explain why he isn’t listed on the maps of famous people, but this page indicates he is buried in “Afdeling F” (near the metro construction): http://www.assistens.dk/side5.htm

    • telescoper Says:

      Ah right. In fact I didn’t go to that part at all. Most of the ones I was looking for were around Q and R and thereabouts.

      I should have checked before going, of course, but my landlady (whose son, coincidentally, is a tenor) told me his name was on the map so I thought I’d find it easily.

  2. Cemeteries are friendly, interesting places, I find myself having conversations with those interred and wondering about their lives. Many friends do likewise. In NZ Jewish burials were in ordinary cemeteries in 1800s . Nice that Hans Christian Anderson is there alongside existentialist philosophers, a nice mix!

  3. Steve Warren Says:

    When you go back perhaps you could pass on some kind words to poor Regine Olsen (married name Schlegel) whom Kirkegaard so cruelly abandoned, who apparently also is buried there somewhere.

  4. Cathays cemetery is interesting and popular although people there are mainly just wandering around rather than having picnics and most of the sunbathers appear to be maintenance staff on their tea or lunch breaks. You can also find people sleeping there during the day. One guy looked to be very dead although when I checked he wasn’t. He wasn’t very coherent but I think he was waiting for the local homeless shelter to open. Anyway, he didn’t seem too put out to be woken.

    When my daughter was very little she thought that when people were old enough they made their own way to the cemetery to die. Like elephants.

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