On a sunny winter’s day I traveled to The Hague, the third biggest city in The Netherlands, to visit cemetery Kerkhoflaan. Located on the outskirts of the center close to Scheveningen and the coastline, the cemetery was built on a sandy dune landscape back in 1830. Next to its gorgeous grave monuments the property also contains a building known as the ‘Apparent Dead House’. With the sun and a gentle sea breeze as my guides, I explored this beautiful piece of history.
The cemetery gates open to the main path that leads to the Apparent Dead House. Dutch architect Zeger Reijers designed this building in 1828. Initially the building was meant as a place for the recently deceased.
At the end of the 18th century a general fascination arose for mors putativa: suspended animation – the slowing or stopping of life processes by exogenous or endogenous means without termination, similar to the lethargic state of animals who appear to be dead but can wake up without suffering any harm. People who were informed of this concept became afraid of being buried alive.
Death-watchers and relatives of the deceased would tend to the corpses in the Apparent Dead House and hold a feather or mirror in front of their faces to check for breath. If the feather moved, or the mirror became clouded, the person was still alive.
Another way to check if someone was really dead was by attaching their arms and legs to a bell-system with ropes. If they moved, a bell would ring, and someone would come to their rescue.
As medical science progressed and the fear for suspended animation lessened, most of these buildings were demolished. This one in The Hague is one of the few that are left and is nowadays a National monument. It was expanded with an extra hall and is still in use as a reception location for funerals.
The first very prominent grave that caught my eye was this monument for Austrian general Nicolaas Emanuel Frederik von Gumoëns who was part of the Dutch army and is honored here for his defense during the Siege of Antwerp in 1832. He voluntarily took part in this battle, got wounded and died of tetanus and other complications six days later.
My friend Wilco accompanied me on this trip and took photos of me. Wilco and I go way back: we have been friends for 15 years now. He lives in The Hague and had visited the cemetery before, but never fully explored it the way a graveyard-enthusiast like me does.
It’s always a surprise for me to find out if a person I bring along on a cemetery trip will actually enjoy it, but he definitely did. Our philosophical conversations about the meaning of life and death have been non-stop since our visit. I’m blessed to have friends I can share these experiences with.
From the city hall statistics I learned that in January 2018 the cemetery had a total of 14720 graves. The cemetery was built after it became prohibited to bury people in churches due to health reasons in 1829. Amongst its dead are Dutch writers, actors, musicians and political leaders.
The first one of my two favorite graves of this graveyard: a heavily damaged tomb.
It reads: “Those who look for me early on shall find me.” The sun was making its way down toward the horizon, which resulted in a beautiful lens flare. Or was it an apparition?
This very modern artsy grave of two museum lovers had a little cast iron seat and shopping bags placed on top of it. It is not very likely that it was meant to actually sit on, but I like to interact with the graves I find. The inscription reads something along the lines of: “A museum spans a whole lifetime.”
Henk Overduin was a museologist and published one book entitled The Museum as an Obsession.
One of the reasons I do these cemetery reviews is to inspire and motivate you to go out there and visit a cemetery yourself. They are everywhere, all around us, and should not be forgotten. There is so much beauty and historical value to be found there that deserves to live on in our world today.
There’s nothing scary about these places except for the reminder they give us of our own mortality. Cemeteries are like special parks, filled with memento mori, for us to explore and re-connect to. Besides remembering our deceased loved ones who are buried here, we can tap into all aspects of life, time, and memory, and see where we stand in the midst of all that – see what it means to be human.
Last but not least: my second favorite grave.
I sometimes get the feeling I am being guided to certain places. Certain graves, in this instance.
I had almost seen the entire cemetery as Wilco took a moment to sit down on a bench and enjoy the late afternoon sun. I felt that there was one part I had not been to yet so I walked off one more time by myself. Turning a couple corners here and there, my eye suddenly caught a grave bathing in light. And through that golden sunlight, the shape of a cat suddenly became visible.
It turns out to be the grave of Pieter Pijl, founder of Stichting Proefdiervrij, a Dutch foundation against animal testing. Pieter was a doctor who came up with scientific arguments next to the already known ethical arguments why the use of animals during testing and vivisections should be prohibited and replaced with other methods.
If heaven exists, I bet Pieter is in a heaven filled with all the animals who are eternally thankful to him.
Finding his grave was a perfect closure of a perfect cemetery exploration day.