On a gorgeous summer day last week I decided to venture out to a tiny village on the outskirts of Amsterdam: Ouderkerk aan de Amstel. Of course I was on a death-related mission. This picturesque town happens to be home to the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands, Beth Haim. I had seen a few images of the place online and was instantly triggered by the intricate tombstone carvings I spotted. Little did I know that this place is the ultimate heaven on earth for a graveyard-girl like myself.
Warning 1: this post is very photo heavy. And – warning 2 – it may provoke the sudden urge to visit Ouderkerk aan de Amstel as soon as possible.
The main entrance is next to the caretakers house, aka the “Vega House”. The gate depicts the phoenix, the mythical bird that lives for a thousand years, then dies, and is later resurrected from its ashes. “The phoenix is a bird whose name is chol, and death has no power over it, because it did not taste the fruit from the tree of knowledge. At the end of thousand years it renews itself, and returns to his youth.”
At the entrance there are instructions on how to proceed and information on the history of the 400 year old cemetery. It is custom for men to wear a kippah upon entering the cemetery grounds. There is a bucket filled with pebbles one can place upon the graves, as it is a Jewish tradition to do so, and you will see some of these pebbles on the tombstones in the following pictures. There seem to be several meanings behind this ritual, varying from bringing protection to the dead and helping them to pass on, to simply symbolizing the fact that we visited them and leaving something material behind to let the dead know they are loved and remembered.
One other explanation is that Jewish priests can not come near a grave or a corpse as this is seen as impure. Marking the graves with rocks was sometimes done as a warning to them, so they knew not to come any nearer.
The last sentence on the plate above says “No entrance for Kohanim” and I had no idea what that meant, but I looked it up first thing after I got back. Kohanim are the Jewish priests, and all those who carry the surname Cohen, who are the descendants of the sons of Aaron who served as priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jewish law forbids a kohen from having contact with corpses, other than those of close family members. For this reason a kohen might avoid entering a cemetery, or attending a funeral. Some Kohanim are especially careful about this rule, and may even avoid entering a museum that contains mummies.
My name is Crobatia, so let’s go inside!
Beth Haim means “House of Life” – and as you can see, it is indeed full of life. The cemetery is like a lush and peaceful secret garden. Most of the tombstones are hidden in the midst of tall grass and wild bushes. They depict detailed scenes from the past that tell the stories of the people who are buried here, about their lives, their values and their beliefs.
This engraving shows two hands that make the symbol for a priestly Cohanim blessing, or “Nesiat Kapayim” – the “lifting of the hands”. According to Jewish tradition, the Divine Presence would shine through the fingers of the priest as they blessed the people, and no one was allowed to look at this out of respect for God.
There is a total of 28000 graves at Beth Haim, a large part of which belongs to the Sephardi Jews, whose ancestors lived in Spain and Portugal. The cemetery was purchased by the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1614 and almost reached full capacity in 1923. Many famous Jewish rabbi’s, diplomats and scientists are buried here, like the parents of the Dutch philosopher Spinoza. The tombstones have inscriptions in Dutch, Portuguese and Hebrew and are carved with elaborate scenes containing many beautiful mystic symbols.
The other building on the cemetery grounds is where the funeral ceremonies take place. It was built in 1705 and divides the old part of the cemetery with the historical monumental tombstones from the part with relatively newer graves.
Beth Haim has an incredible amount of stunning tombstones, so it is hard for me to pick a favorite. One that really stands out for me though is the following grave from 1633 that depicts two cats. Because cats. Yes, cats! Memento Meow ♡
Across the road from the cemetery you can see the St. Urbanus church. In every direction you look here you can see something stunning. The graveyard fits so perfectly with its surroundings that its magic fully blends in with the bordering streets and buildings.
There was this one gorgeous grave with a shield containing turtles right on the edge of the cemetery, where you look out on the Amstelkerk. When I came closer I found a dead mole right next to it. Not a bad place to die, mister mole, not a bad place at all.
Walking around here, I could not get over the fact how extremely beautiful some of these 17th century graves are. What a glorious place! To make my visit complete, I witnessed two butterflies make love on one of the marble tombstones.
Together with Huis te Vraag, Beth Haim is now my favorite cemetery in the Amsterdam region. If you ever happen to be close to Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, I definitely advise you to check it out. And if you’re lucky, you might even run into one of the friendly neighborhood cats.