In the south of Amsterdam, hidden in the midst of a residential area on the outskirts of the city, lies one of the most beautiful cemeteries of the Netherlands: Huis te Vraag. The estate of Huis te Vraag stems from the 15th century and has been in use as a farm, a shipyard and a cotton factory, until it got reassigned its new function as a Protestant cemetery in 1891. Up until 1962, when the local authorities decided to close the cemetery for further burials. Since then Huis te Vraag has been a cultural-historical monumental property. It is open for visitors all year round and is being maintained by two local Dutch artists, who live in the former auditorium.
We ventured out there on a warm summer day, which turned out to be the perfect timing. Surrounded by a lush variation of plants and trees, the area of the cemetery is quite tiny. It keeps about 12.000 buried bodies, but it has the size of a small city park. Back in the days, caskets were stacked on top of each other in graves as deep as five meters in the ground. This is why although the cemetery is relatively tiny, it holds so many bodies.
As we made our way through the entrance gate, we heard a loud meowing in the distance. It was of one of the cemetery’s residents who hurried over to come and greet us: this curious black cat. He turned out to be our guide for the day. We named him Carlos.
Walking around at Huis te Vraag is like walking through the garden of an ancient fairy tale. The beauty of the overgrown plants is simply stunning. Together with the silence, except from the chirping of birds and the clever meowing of Carlos, it makes for the perfect spot to spend the afternoon. The people who live nearby the cemetery often come here just to sit down and relax or read a book.
The first grave we encountered was a family grave with a picture of a baby boy who passed away in 1930. What I loved most about this grave was that there was nothing eerie about it. It looked so utterly peaceful and beautiful, almost as if it was radiating the essence of life that naturally includes death.
We continued on our way along the sand paths, with Carlos by our side. He mentioned some specific graves to us and seemed to be just as thrilled to have us there, as we were to hang out with him.
This must be the type of cemetery visual artist Roger Ballen dreams of being buried at. In the interview we did with him he said, “I remember once when I was in Latvia, I visited this old cemetery, with graves from before the Second World War. The whole cemetery was taken over by the trees and nature. Leaves of the trees were scattered around the moss-covered headstones. The people buried there and nature itself intertwined in a certain way. It would really be nice to find a place like that, where the human body naturally decomposes in the earth and ends up as part of the tree.”
Then it was time for our lunch break, or rather, a cemetery picnic! We opened our traditional bottle of prosecco and sat down to process just how amazing this place is.
With our bellies full, and Carlos horribly overfed, we made another round through the cemetery. Turning corners on the small paths, I discovered new treasures everywhere we looked. The graves overgrown with ivy were breathtakingly gorgeous.
The edge of the cemetery looks out over a grass field. I looked down at the ground and noticed a patch of daisies in the shape of a cross.
During the Second World War, unidentified bodies were buried here, unregistered. For this reason there are a lot of anonymous graves and the exact number of bodies that are buried here will never be known.
An urn containing the ashes of Dutch poet Hendrik van Teylingen was illegally buried here in 1988. Hendrik was so in love with Huis te Vraag, that had written 37 sonnets about this very cemetery. It seems to me that this was his rightful final resting place.
One of my favorite graves was this ivy-covered family grave with an engraved pentagram.
Huis te Vraag definitely exceeded all our expectations. We spent the entire afternoon marveling in its beauty and didn’t really want to leave. If you’re ever in Amsterdam, make sure to pay Huis te Vraag a visit. And say hi to Carlos from me!