One thing that’s true of the grand cemeteries of Europe is that they often contain the graves of famous artists, writers, musicians, philosophers, politicians, and more. Assistens Cemetery is no different. Although this cemetery first started as a burial site for poor people (in fact, “assistens” was a term for additional burial sites to help with overcrowding in the main ones), over time it became fashionable to be buried here. While most of the famous people buried here would really only be known to Danes, there are two that stand out – Hans Christian Andersen, writer of many works but most well-known for his fairy tales, and Soren Kierkegaard, the first existentialist philosopher. And, like many famous people buried elsewhere, their gravestones are quite simple affairs, so much so that you might pass them by if they were extensively marked and pinpointed on maps and within the cemetery itself.
Kierkegaard Family Grave
Hans Christen Andersen grave
I normally try to be consistent with this blog and keep things in black and white, but sometimes colour is necessary, as is seen with the little red squirrel with big ears, the beautiful cherry and apple blossoms all over the cemetery, a wood cut that looks like a city skyline, and some pens left for a writer.
Lots of beautiful blossoms
The cemetery itself seems more like a park or garden, as there are many sections that don’t have gravestones, and instead just trees, flowers, or bushed to mark the final resting place or memorial of people who have passed away. In fact, as 90% of Danes get cremated, many are often put into anonymous burial plots that have no markers whatsoever. Families know where the plot is, but not the exact location of the urn. In any event, it may explain why so much of the cemetery is a green space, with so few monuments.
Old cemetery bell
Park, garden, or cemetery?
Like my recent trip to Scotland, there seemed to be quite a number of profiles, often in bronze, and sometimes marble, of the deceased on many of the gravestones. My favourite is of the lady who has a large bird hanging out above her – is it a turkey? a peacock? I don’t know, but I love it.
Profile with bird
There were of course, more stylized reliefs, showing grief or sorrow. Quite a number of gravestones had circular pendants featuring angels in different poses (I put a couple below), or more stylized crosses/flowers/etc. I also found a beehive symbol – maybe an old type of Danish homestead? – on a number of markers.
Angel and child pendant
“Beehive” and snail
There were also many monuments that had more unusual designs – like the woman with many breasts, the beautiful stone in multiple languages and alphabets, a large symmetrical monument with stylized angels, the obligatory pyramid that seems to pop up at least once in every large cemetery, a fenced-in monument with statues and relief, and a lovely relief of a scholar at work.
Obligatory pyramid, with iconic Danish buildings in the background
Scholar at work
This cemetery is also home to three copies of the same statue, all done really well (but with very minor differences). One statue is in the middle of the old burial ground, in the middle, but standing above, some bushes (images 1, 4, 5, 6 below). Another is by the cemetery wall that separates the old burial sections from the other parts of the cemetery (image 2), and the third (image 3) is in the more forested section of the cemetery (where most of the most iconic statues are). In fact, she is right next to the beautiful sepulchral statue to Thyra Schmiegelow (the featured statue of this post).
Sorrow 1: side view
Sorrow 2: by the wall
Sorrow 3: in the woods
Sorrow 1: side view 2
Sorrow 1: front view
Sorrow 1: back view (nice hair)
So the featured image of this post is a statue for Thyra Schmiegelow, who was once married to a well-known businessman, Christian Schmiegelow. She died at age 35, in 1905, and this large bronze monument to her is clearly the most iconic in the cemetery. There are, of course, other grieving females and angels in the cemetery as well, but none have the same draw as she does.
Angel with light green patina (not bronze?)
Single in the garden
The old burial area, in the centre of the cemetery, is surrounded by a low wall, the same type of wall that surrounds the cemetery in general. Along all of these walls are mostly family gravesites, although through the years the plaques and memorials have worn away to nothing or have collapsed altogether. This wasn’t a cemetery full of obelisks and columns, although the few columns I came across were quite interesting, one with a box in the middle, another with bronze ivy climbing the base, with a pendant of the deceased, and topped by a swan. The only wildlife I saw in this cemetery were birds and squirrels, although a cat monument had me do a double-take, and a small elephant marking a child’s grave were two of a few animal depictions I saw within the cemetery (including birds and dolphins). Overall it was a really lovely place to visit, and hopefully the next time I’m in Copenhagen it will be for more than an afternoon, as I would really like to explore some of the other cemeteries within the city.
Box and column
On the wall
On the wall
Column with bronze embellishments
Cat and bird (one is real)
Monuments: Quite a number of interesting ones, especially on the right side of the cemetery (where Kierkegaard is buried). The Hans Christian Andersen side is more park-like with fewer monuments.
Grounds: Surprisingly extensive, but flat and well-maintained so it’s easy to get around. Some spaces are quite open, others have more tree cover, which can be good when you get unexpected rain showers.
Visitors: Quite a few, as this is basically a park for the locals where people go running, cycling, and just generally hanging out. The chapel is now a cultural centre with many events. This cemetery features in every tourist list about the city, and as it is near the tourist heart of downtown, it’s not surprising to see other visitors here.
Notes: There are a number of benches throughout the park, and most of the green spaces outside the centre burial area are open for picnicking and sunbathing, so it is an important green space for locals. That said, those same locals seem to like to smoke a lot, as every time I wanted to sit somewhere it always seemed to be that that’s where the smokers were. I suppose in warmer weather there would be more options available.
Site: Assistens Kirkegard
Notable Internments: Hans Christian Andersen, Soren Kierkegaard, Niels Bohr, Hans Christian Orsted, Ben Webster, Kenny Drew
Location: Kapelvej 4, in the Norrebro district. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the same metro station.
Hours: 07:-00-22:00 daily