Six Feet Under. Garden or Graveyard?

The new village cemetery in Spijk in the municipality of Lingewaal, Gelderland, opened on September 3 and is the work of three artists – Mike Tyler, Ronald van Tienhoven and Louwrien Wijers. The cemetery is designed as a walled garden, a hortus conclusus.

Spijk is a small village on the River Linge with a population of 800. As the existing cemetery was running out of space, the municipality decided to design a new one containing 360 adult graves, 21 children’s graves, 44 graves for urns, and a field for dispersing ashes. But very soon the design, with its familiar hedges and straight pathways, was deemed inadequate. A new vision was called for. Three artists were therefore brought on board via Foundation for Public Art (SKOR).

On the basis of the relatively small area available, around 60 x 50 metres, they came up with the idea of ‘open enclosure’. Louwrien Wijers: ‘We started with a box open along the eastern side, offering views of the surrounding landscape as far as the horizon.’ The relation with the open landscape and the intimate atmosphere of the cemetery are features of the hortus conclusus, a notion introduced by Erasmus. In the publication De Openbare Stadstuin Erik de Jong defines it thus: ‘The hortus conclusus is (…) an emblem of the merging of nature and culture. It stands for seclusion as a space essential to life and experience.’

Seclusion is created by enclosing the cemetery with intertwined fencing and sections of clay wall. One of the walls functions as a receptacle for urns, while another can be used as a memorial wall. Paths arranged in a cruciform formation divide the cemetery into four sections, which are raised about half a metre in a reference to old burial mounds. The sections in turn are divided into rows of graves separated by paths of mown grass. Given the number of people that will be buried here each year (eight a year on average), the cemetery will remain ‘under-occupied’ for a long time. While unused, the area intended for graves will be planted with a one-year mixture of flowers supplemented by lightly blossoming bulbous plants. As each new grave is dug the expanse of flowers will be disrupted. The natural-looking areas for graves, the sense of enclosure, and the splendid view make the cemetery a pleasant place in which to reflect and seek meaning, a hortus contemplationis as well as hortus conclusus.

The new cemetery in Spijk is a successful project in numerous ways. Besides the fact that it’s a charming green space and more than simply a burial ground, its realisation makes it a unique project. Widespread support for the project was created by informing and exciting the residents of Spijk from an early stage. Local expertise was used in the construction. A contractor provided the foundations for the clay walls, a development company built the raised burial mounds, and the municipal service planted and seeded the burial fields and will maintain them in the future. The cemetery is thus a ‘garden’ by and for everyone, a fact made clear by the enthusiastic reactions at the official opening in the village hall. The project was made possible through subsidies from SKOR and the Province of Gelderland, which sees the cemetery as a model project.

Despite the very young greenery (the degree of seclusion will increase as time passes), and the recently mown grass, it’s easy to imagine what the cemetery will look like in a few years: a garden laden with symbolism, a beautiful final resting place, and a place of comfort for surviving family and friends.