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Life Finds a Way in the Cemeteries of Copenhagen

By Karla Clemmensen
October 10, 2023

Some people might associate cemeteries with eeriness. Others see them as beautiful places where farewells are bid, and the deceased are remembered. However, cemeteries are more than that. Particularly in Copenhagen, they have transformed into green sanctuaries visited by people from near and far, accommodating leisure activities and social interactions.

A dance chapel, photogenic cherry trees, sunbathing, and circles of people in the grass. A future theatre in an old chapel, cloudburst management projects, and a therapy garden. There’s life in Copenhagen’s cemeteries, although traditionally designed to cater to the deceased and the grieving.

These cemeteries have evolved into public urban spaces that the living flock to, not prompted by death, but by the joy of life. Although not a new phenomenon, it’s a distinct feature not common in many cities worldwide.

Stine Helweg, a cemetery guide in Copenhagen, provides tours explaining the burial culture, history, and utilization of these cemeteries.

“It’s a phenomenon linked to larger cities, mainly in the Nordic countries,” she says.

The End of Coffin Burials

Helweg links this unique cemetery culture to the general decline in religiosity among the population. A cultural shift, coupled with changes in burial patterns, has paved the way for transformation. More space, simply put.

Cremation became legal in Denmark at the end of the 19th century. Prior to this, the dead were exclusively buried in coffins, presenting a significant challenge to allocate space for all.

Doctors particularly advocated for cremation, pointing out hygienic issues associated with coffin burials. Practicality and financial considerations also played roles, as the continuous expansion of cemeteries was both spatially and economically demanding.

In Copenhagen in 1950, about half of the deceased were cremated; today, it’s the majority (around 90 percent). Consequently, vast green spaces in some of Copenhagen’s cemeteries have been unveiled and gradually occupied by the city’s living inhabitants.

Annemette Fredslund Aagaard, a landscape architect and project leader for the development of Copenhagen’s municipal cemeteries, also believes that the city’s increasing population has driven the transformation of the cemeteries, especially during the period of 2010-2015.

“Over an extended period, there were about 1000 new residents coming to Copenhagen every month. This trend has continued, leading to a shortage of green spaces. Politically, there was speculation on whether cemeteries, with their excess space, could be used more for recreation,” says Aagaard.

Although parts of the cemeteries have transformed into recreational areas, it’s crucial to remember that they remain places where the mourning visit graves.

Clear Delineation of Functions

The design and vegetation of cemeteries significantly impact their function as burial sites and how citizens use the green spaces recreationally. Aagaard compares the initial cemetery layout to a house.

“The cemetery has an outer frame, similar to a property wall. A wall, dike, or fence always surrounds a cemetery because it’s a consecrated space. Inside, there are several ‘rooms’ referred to as sections and burial spaces, typically marked by higher hedges. When you enter a burial space surrounded by a hedge, it’s akin to stepping into one of the house’s rooms. Several people are buried here with their tombstones,” she explains.

However, maintaining this structure is resource intensive. To mitigate this, the traditional planting structure has been altered. Aagaard now likens parts of the cemeteries to open-plan offices or green deserts, lacking clear markers for individual burial spaces and distinct divisions between burial spaces and recreational zones. This lack of clarity can make it confusing for mourners to know where to direct their grief and unclear for other citizens where they can stay without disturbance.

Reinstating Green Axes

In the development plans for the cemeteries of Copenhagen Municipality, there’s a focus on re-establishing the spatial green structures and axes, through the use of vegetation, hedges, and trees. According to Aagaard, this aims to create well-functioning green spaces for burials and recreational functions, where mourners can find peace and where recreational users are clear about where they can be. In this way, various types of behavior can exist side by side successfully.

At the same time, it’s also crucial that the cemeteries are planned so they can be operated economically. Aagaard explains that the areas of the cemeteries can be designed in many different ways, and nowadays, parts of the cemeteries are increasingly being planned as natural areas with a nature-like expression, which doesn’t require as much care and is, therefore, cheaper to operate.

Signage is also used, as seen in Assistens Cemetery, where there are clearly marked areas for burials and others for recreation and relaxation. Maps are available, indicating the placement of the different areas.

Stine Helweg adds that the City of Copenhagen has created campaigns for areas where it’s challenging to interpret whether they are inviting stay or not. She uses the common grave at Assistens Cemetery as an example – a large lawn without tombstones and, for that matter, without hedges to ‘enclose’ the area, but where you are still not allowed to hang out.

Development in Collaboration

The cemeteries in Copenhagen vary in size, expression, nature, and target group. Aagaard explains that the development plans are largely made in collaboration with the citizens and users of the cemeteries.

“When we talk about opening the cemetery to the outside world, it’s crucial to get the outside world’s insight into or attitude towards the cemetery. We wanted to find out what citizens could imagine the cemeteries could be used for while considering that the cemeteries are also burial grounds,” says Aagaard.

Therefore, a wide range of citizens – young, old, and people who had grave sites at the cemeteries – as well as NGOs, the cemeteries’ gardeners, specialist workers, and undertakers were invited to participate in workshops and a user survey that Aagaard, together with a team of anthropologists, has prepared.

The development plans for the green cemeteries are thus tailored so that the living can also participate.

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