On a cloudy winter’s day I teamed up with Sheldon Goodman from London who runs an epic blog called the Cemetery Club. As you may have guessed, he writes about the history of the dead. He likes to refer to cemeteries as “libraries of the dead”. We met up while he was visiting Amsterdam, and what else do two thanatophiles (in the best sense of the word) do other than exploring one of these libraries of deceased?
Buitenveldert is a Roman Catholic cemetery in the south of Amsterdam, named after the neighborhood it’s in. It happens to be right across the street from the Rietveld Academy – the art school I used to go to over a decade ago! I remember knowing there was a cemetery nearby but never actually went there when I went to school there.
The cemetery is from 1836 and was initially built around the church of Sint-Augustinusparochie te Nieuwer-Amstel, but the church relocated to another building in 1935 and unfortunately the original church building was demolished back in 1994.
Sheldon had done a bit of research beforehand and found some old pictures of grave monuments. Below you see funeral and grave of opera singer Johan Rogmans. The photo’s are from 1911 and as you can see on the next image, many more headstones were erected around it since then.
Another important figure who is buried at Buitenveldert is the iconic Dutch cabaret artist and singer Wim Sonneveld. He died of a heart attack in 1974 when he was only 56. The story behind this is quite tragic in a strange, almost comic way: he had a first heart attack on February 20, after which he ended up in the hospital. He recovered and did an interview with a newspaper in which he spoke of his inspiration to work on new projects, amongst which was a new album he wanted to release named “The Heart” – an album with songs all specifically about the heart. On March the 8th, the day the interview was published, Wim had a second heart attack and died.
Wim was gay and is buried together with Dutch author Huub Janssen, his first partner, who died a decade after Wim.
Let’s head over to my personal favorite grave monument: this gorgeous monument for Johannes Theodorus Petrus de Groot, a Dutch priest, theologian and philosopher who lived from 1848 to 1922. The monument was created by sculptor Pieter Biesiot who wanted it to symbolize the unity between science and faith. It depicts the images of a philosopher on the left and of a priest on the right. Between them is the cross; the crossbeam of the cross is shaped by their two foreheads combined. Both also hold a book, a sign of wisdom. The inscription reads: “Whoever dies in innocence / completes his life”.
The cemetery has around 1400 graves with a total of about 2700 people who are buried here. It also has a wide variety of old trees, adding an extra dimension of tranquillity to the cemetery grounds. Some of the graves are protected national monuments, like the following one of the Wiegman-Dobbelmann family. On both sides, a funeral procession of angels, children, martyrs and saints can be seen on bronze plaques.
While Sheldon was busy exploring this beautiful monument and noticed the candles on both sides were actually lit, I made a different and slightly macabre discovery in the dirt surrounding the monument. Something sparkling silvery caught my eye – it happened to be a coffin handle.
I didn’t have to search far to see where it came from. Right around the corner were the remains of a recently cleared grave, which was apparently still under construction.
One of the things I really enjoyed about spending time here with Sheldon is that finally I wasn’t the only one apologetically half standing on graves to get a good picture and getting up close to a headstone to read its inscription. In order to honor the dead, a bit of investigation is sometimes simply necessary.
The headstone above says: “Memory is the perfume of the soul.”
And last but not least, my second favorite grave of Buitenveldert: this ornamental Celtic cross from 1948.
After we were done browsing the graves, we headed to a nearby cafe to have tea and cake. Sheldon told me about visiting a cemetery with his parents when he was little and being fascinated with these places from then on. I fully resonate with his urge to share the history of those who came before us, and the importance of not forgetting about the people who helped build our world as it is today.
Make sure you check out his blog, the Cemetery Club.