Brussels graveyard captures burial traditions of days past

Summary

The Laken Cemetery in Brussels takes visitors back to a time when people put great pride in their final resting place and when headstones were built to last

Oldest graveyard

Belgium’s very own Père Lachaise, that’s how the Laken cemetery in Brussels is often described. Not just because it houses the graves of local greats or because it has an original cast of French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” on site. No, just like its famous Parisian sister, the Brussels graveyard is the product of a time when people still wanted their final resting place to be an artwork, designed to last forever. You can enjoy the beauty of this lost tradition against the shadows of the recently renovated Church of Our Lady of Laken during guided visits to the cemetery on All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

When I arrive at the Onze Lieve Vrouw Voorplein in Laken, people are walking to and fro with buckets, cleaning products and chrysanthemums to spruce up the graves of their loved ones for the remembrance holidays. Although a couple of grey clouds and a dramatic sky might have been more fitting, I visited the cemetery of Laken on a sunny day.

The Laken cemetery is one of a kind. Not only is it the oldest graveyard in Brussels still in use, it is also the only one attached to a church. There are historic reasons for this. In the late 18th century, emperor Jozef II decided that people would no longer be buried in the immediate church surroundings for health reasons. But the cemetery of Laken got a free pass. The fact that the royal family settled in Laken in 1831, when Belgium gained independence, of course had everything to do with this. The cemetery moreover even managed to expand multiple times.

Back then, the Laken church was still a humble version of what it would eventually become. When Queen Louise Marie of Orléans died in 1850, then King Leopold I didn’t feel the little church was worthy of Her Majesty the Queen, or any other member of the royal family for that matter. So he organised a contest for architects to build a new and more prestigious one, almost on the same site. The famous architect Josef Poelaert entered the contest under a different name, but he still won. Poelaert oversaw the start of the works but eventually became too caught up with other assignments like the Justice Palace, so he passed the job on to other architects. 

Dead and famous

The Brussels elite treasured the prestige that having their family graves so close to the Royal family afforded, and the cemetery of Laken soon became the go-to graveyard for architects (such as Poelaert or Alphonse Balat), politicians (Brussels mayor Nicolas-Jean Rouppe), high-profile businessmen (supermarket founder Adolphe Delhaize) and artists (violinist Charles de Bériot and opera singer Maria Malibran). Everyone wanted his or her own eternal spot at the Laken cemetery. 

The Brussels’ elites treasured the prestige that having their family graves so close to the Royal family afforded

That these individuals didn’t have to worry about money while alive was often reflected in the way they wanted to be remembered posthumously. The list of funerary art at the Laken cemetery runs long and includes little chapels, gorgeous tombs, beautiful sculptures symbolising the loss the families had to overcome, sober Art Deco tombstones and bombastic, monumental portals. Many of the monuments are also listed.

Even though the graveyard had already expanded in the past, it still found itself lacking space in the 19th century. Future Brussels’ mayor but then alderman Emile Bockstael found a solution to the problem in 1875. Inspired by examples he had seen in Portugal, Italy and Madrid, he ordered a crypt with many galleries to be installed in which people were buried in vaults placed on top of each other. The galleries were illuminated by the natural light from the window openings in the ceiling, while the different entrances to the crypt were marked by impressive tomb monuments. One of those monuments would eventually be erected in honour of Bockstael himself.

Unfortunately, over the course of time, the galleries became dilapidated and, eventually, they had to be closed to the public. The crypt was in such bad shape that not even the families of those resting there were allowed to enter to pay their tributes. The neglect of such a unique example of funerary architecture stirred a lot of protest, but it would last until 2012 before the necessary steps were taken to start restoring the crypt galleries.

Old meets new

You’ll have to be patient just a little while longer if you would like to visit the galleries. But you can already get a taste of what the graveyard will look like once the construction workers are gone. Since they had to move the tombstones to make the concrete layer water-resistant and keep the crypt galleries dry, the workers decided to clean the tombs at the same time. The result is piles of individual tombstone pieces (pictured) that have been carefully numbered so they can easily be reconstructed afterward. Some of the graves already look brandnew. 

The contrast with the other, untouched part of the graveyard is huge. On this side of the cemetery, the graves seem to have sometimes been chaotically placed next to one another, wherever a little spot was left. The blue stones here have turned darkgrey or become covered with weeds. There’s one grave with a concrete cross that has tumbled down and broken into pieces; elsewhere a sepulchre is missing ornaments. Old sepia pictures of those buried appear to offer the only indication of who they were, because their names have all faded over the years.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. My tour guide tells me that when eternal concessions for graves were still awarded – which are no longer possible today – the deal was that families doubled the amount they spent on the sepulchre so that the grave monument would always be tended to. Obviously, not all parties have stuck to their end of the deal. But walking out of the cemetery, I wonder, if maybe that’s quite all right. A storied graveyard like that of Laken shouldn’t try to hide its age too much.

Photo by Débora Votquenne

The Laken Cemetery in Brussels takes visitors back to a time when people put great pride in their final resting place and when graves were built to last.

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