Visiting the dead

The city’s graveyards tell mysterious tales about the people who lived there before us
BY KIM RENFREW WITH PHOTOS BY SIMON WALD-LASOWSKI

When I was little we used to play in graveyards. We’d scramble round headstones like little Dylan Thomases de nos jours (or de those jours: it was the 1970s then). Me and Andrew Gibbins dived for cover from a runaway horse once, behind the headstones in Hafod Park. Me and Tabitha tried to raise the spirits in the one in Waun Wen. In those days, great mobs of children would run screaming all round town, claiming that they’d just seen a ghost. With a churchyard on every street corner you could never escape the dead in Swansea.

The graveyards of my childhood were plain, austere places with serried ranks of unadorned stone bearing simple inscriptions. Wales is a country where the merest hint of decoration in church (or, rather, chapel) is an affectation dangerously close to Rome. Also, there were no rich people in Swansea, so you never saw any ornate marble mausoleums.

Yet there were thrilling glimpses into other worlds for a child with an overactive imagination. There was the Jewish burial ground perched on top of Townhill, which was always locked, so that you had to scale its tall wall to peer in at the impenetrable Hebrew script, which seemed impossibly exotic to us in our circumscribed world. Or there was the grave in the Gower with the name of the murderer chipped off the headstone of his victim.

This interest in graveyards stayed with me as I grew up and began to travel. I’ve paid my respects to Marx in Highgate and Wilde in Père Lachaise, swooned at Dietrich in Friedenau, left cigarettes for Serge and snubbed de Beauvoir and Sartre for Jean Seberg and Duras in Montparnasse.

And then, after I’d been hunkered down in Amsterdam for three years, it dawned on me (the dawn of the dead?) that I’d never once visited a graveyard here. The hesitation was due in part to the fact that the dead are kept at arm’s length here – and for good reason. In a populous country literally built on water, the last thing you want is the dearly departed leaching into the soil and water supplies. (Cemeteries started springing up outside densely populated areas towards the end of the 18th century, but this precaution wasn’t enshrined in law until 1866). If you want to find the dead here, you have to go and look for them at or beyond the city limits.)

And then, of course, there’s Dutch culture. It lacks big names known abroad – except, of course, for the well-known artists. But even here, the people most of us know best were buried in pauper’s graves (Rembrandt) or interred abroad (Van Gogh). You have to get to know this country before you can learn to love its dead.

But here I was, armed at last with some language skills and cultural knowledge. It was time to start exploring. Any journey through Amsterdam’s cemeteries has to involve one of the biggies – the Nieuwe Oosterbegraafplaats in Watergraafsmeer or Zorgvlied on the banks of the Amstel, both rivals for the ‘Père Lachaise of Amsterdam’ laurel. Each contains notables, but the dead seem to be divided between them. The one contains those who flexed their brains and the other those who enjoyed the pleasure of the senses.

In the Nieuwe Ooster you’ll find poets, politicians and painters aplenty. This cemetery was recently a focal point of attention when polymath film-maker, journalist and provocateur Theo van Gogh was cremated there last November. Zorgvlied, on the other hand, has circus masters, nightclub mavens and punky junkies on its side. Ever conscious of a similar tension in myself between good-time girl and swot, I toss a coin to see what side of the Cartesian split I’ll pursue this time.

Heads it is: the flesh wins out.

Zorgvlied occupies a magnificent position on the road to Oudekerk, along the banks of the Amstel. The riverside spot means it’s ideally placed for waterborne send-offs, and if you want evidence that this place is a departure lounge for sybarites, then look at Manfred Langer’s gravestone. Up against the railings and visible from the road, it features a life-size statue with priapic peaked cap. When he died in 1994, the iT club impresario’s pink coffin was brought here by boat along the Amstel, complete with an entourage that included pumping music and grinding go-go boys. Now vodka bottles are scattered at the base. It’s what he would have wanted.

Standing here, the cemetery – which opened in 1870 – looks pretty small. But once you wander the landscaped lanes (the work of one Jan David Socher and his son) you realise the full extent of it. In fact, it’s a 15-and-a-half hectare necropolis. The oldest section, which was part of the original, much smaller 0.8 hectare site, is on the right as you enter from the Amstel side.

They say that death is the great leveller. But wander in a graveyard and you’ll see that the rich must have their palaces and their seclusion, even in death. Follow the path that curves off to the right, and you’ll tombs that help to make this city make sense. Here’s a Krasnapolsky. There’s Oscar Carré. His great, gated sarcophagus is a good 20 feet tall. It has two Corinthian columns and a roof like a proscenium arch. The circus owner was laid to rest in a scaled-down version of his theatre.

Grander still is the Dorrepaal tomb, the most extravagant I’ve seen anywhere in the city. Unfortunately, information on the family is scant. Whoever they were, they must have been rich, since a life-sized carved angel lays a full-sized stone wreath in an enormous wooden pavilion. Despite the showing off, the grave isn’t meant for prying eyes: you have to clamber up and crane your neck to get a glimpse of the inscriptions, and railings keep back the hoi polloi. I wonder what their house was like?

You couldn’t find a bigger contrast than with Annie M.G. Schmidt’s memorial. While the Dorrepaal’s is forbidding, the writer’s grave has a much more human scale. Visitors, and there must be many,  judging by the gewgaws left behind, place miniature jenever bottles and pottery figurines there as cosy tributes to the storyteller. With its pastel-coloured tiles and gleaming glass surfaces, her tombstone has all the reassuring domesticity of a kitchen.

This abandoned individuality, the lack of gravity of many of the gravestones here, is likely to make foreign eyes (especially sober Welsh ones) pop. They don’t go in for buffed-up granite here, gosh no: here you’ll find graves made of anything from stained glass to chrome to stainless steel. You’ll see hand-made graves and hand-painted ones, and there are Amsterdammetjes galore. And there is another culture shock for repressed Brits: the family graves that display name and date of birth but – not yet, anyway – no date of death. How does it feel to stand at the graveside and see your own name there, waiting? How must it feel to be reminded of your own mortality in such a direct way?

The most chilling one I saw was a twin grave that showed two names, two dates of birth and no dates of death at all. Do the future incumbents ever visit it?

There are some other sombre shocks, too, to shake you out of the island mentality you never knew you had. There’s the grave of Willem Wouthuyzen and Esther Ricardo, who lived in Amsterdam and died in Auschwitz, for instance. However much people in the UK may obsess over the Second World War (and believe me, they do) the horrors of occupation were unknown there. That never really hits home until you become aware of things like this.

And the horrors of wartime occupation are immanent here. By the gates of Rustoord on Weesperstraat in Diemen, for example, the first thing you see is a small memorial stone which reads: TER GEDACHTENIS AAN HEN DIE VIELEN IN DE JAREN 1940-45 DOOR DE HAND VAN DE BEZETTER EN RUSTEN OP DEZE BEGRAAFPLAATS. That means: ‘To the memory of those who fell in the years 1940-45 at the hands of the occupier and who rest in this cemetery.”

Next to the main road, beneath a rattling railway bridge, the spot is suitably grim for such memories. There’s no sheltering greenery or respite from the starkness of death here. Yet it’s one of the most instructive graveyards I’ve visited. Make your way through the grand slabs of graves near the entrance, in the oldest part of the cemetery, where the wealthy have nabbed the best positions (as in life, so in death) and go to the border on the railing side.

A few graves into the new section, on the far left, you should see a great big hunk of highly polished red and black granite. This is the Hell’s Angels’ Broederschap grave. Within lie seven Angels, each of whom was true to the ‘live fast, die young’ dictum, since not one of them made it beyond his forties. The grave – decorated with Christmas baubles and empty JD bottles when I was there – bears the legend AFFA 8118. These palindromes must be meaningful to other Angels, but I’m baffled: like the Dorrepaal’s frill of iron railings, its function is to exclude outsiders.

That insider-outsider dichotomy keeps recurring. A few rows behind the Hells Angels, the Muslim section (dating from the 1970s) begins. You can see the influence of the orient in the fluid elegance of the headstones, some in Arabic, some in Dutch, some in both. A trim hedge divides this section from the rest of the cemetery. It’s part of the bigger whole, but it’s also separate from that whole. I don’t think there’s a neater metaphor for Dutch society.

Nor can I think of anything more bizarre than the pets section, at the very centre. Athos is buried here, and Samson, and a dozen other pets of undisclosed species but specified age (eight, 12, 14), with toy windmills spinning on top. At first I thought I’d stumbled across the children’s quarter, until the odd names made me look closer. It all seems a touch distasteful, in the midst of so many dead humans. No wonder the hedge around it is so high.

Leaving the pets behind, I pick my way through the old part. Here, on the left-hand side as you face the road, a few graves down from the gardeners’’ sheds, is the tomb of the Ansingh family. The last interment, on 14 December 1959, was the painter Lizzy. It’s falling into disrepair now, cracking and subsiding a bit. Funny, isn’t it, how the dead can make the city come to life? From this moment on, Lizzy Ansingh will no longer just be some street name round the corner in De Pijp, but a woman who lived and had a family and died, and whose grave I’ve stood beside. Things fall into place. And your thoughts return to the Second World War as you pass the memorial on your way out again.

They come back again, these thoughts, in Huis te Vraag, on Rijnburgstraat. So many people buried here, you note, died in the first half of the 1940s. Is it coincidence, perhaps, a natural part of the ‘life’ of the cemetery, if you like? This graveyard was opened at the end of the 19th century and closed at the beginning of the 1960s. Or did they fall, like those commemorated at Rustoord, at the hands of the occupiers? Maybe the exigencies of war just wore them out. The grave guards secrets you’ll never know.

That’s what they should do, graveyards: spark your imagination, set you wondering as you wander. At Huis te Vraag, you slip through an unobtrusive entrance to find yourself in a world that looks like it’s straight out of Tennyson’s In Memoriam: cracked stones, gnarled trees, sinking tombs ensnared in ivy. Its pleasures are subtle. There are no big names here, no marble vaults, just ordinary people who did ordinary things and who lie in ordinary graves. But look around and you can learn things it would take an age to research in history books and public records: life expectancies, occupations, what names fall in and out of fashion.

And it’s beautiful here, peaceful and overgrown. I think of Tennyson’s poem: ‘the path that each man trod was dim, or will be dim with weeds.’ Or, as is the case in this country, that path will probably be swept away, one day. (Under Dutch law, a graveyard which has been out of use for 50 years can be cleared and the land reused.) This is a valuable piece of land, next to the Schinkel. In the case of Huis te Vraag, that date (2012) is creeping ever nearer, so you should go and ramble while you can

As for me, I’ve got work to do. I want to look at that behemoth, the Nieuwe Ooster, and the Westgaarde crematorium, where volkszanger André Hazes had his send off in the summer, and the Sint Barbara, up by Sloterdijk. If you go and you see anything dead good, let me know.

Published Amsterdam Weekly 20-26 January 2005. (And in memory of Andrew Gibbins, 1970-2009.)

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2 Responses to “Visiting the dead”

  1. Alexandra Simonon Says:

    Can we have more please? We have been patient for more than a year, now.

  2. Oosterbegraafplaats diemen | Akabutch Says:

    […] Visiting the dead « RENFREWMATIC By admin in Uncategorized  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed. […]

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