How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference: Islamic Cemetery Sections in Maastricht and Leeuwarden

Like it or not, Northern European cemeteries have their roots in ancient Greco-Roman memorial sites whose aesthetic norms were then taken over in the Christian cemetery. However much inflected – for instance in the garden cemeteries of the 19th century or in the ritual restraint of Protestant cemeteries  – a broadly Christian aesthetic has continued to provide a norm. This means that the integration of relative newcomers on the funerary scene – such as Islamic migrants with clearly different ritual and aesthetic demands – has confronted cemetery designers and managers with quite a few difficulties. What we can see is, in effect, that learning to accommodate those newcomers has been a learning process; different strategies have been tried that may or may not satisfy mourners and other visitors.

In what follows I offer a few rather subjective remarks based on my experience of two Islamic sections in Dutch cemeteries, the first one in Maastricht Cemetery Tongerseweg, the other in Cemetery Noorderbegraafplaats in Leeuwarden.

In Cemetery Tongerseweg, the earliest Islamic grave dates from 1984. That grave already features a ‘ritually correct’ orientation towards Mecca.

Oldest Earliest Islamic grave Tongerseweg Maastricht, the Netherlands
Figure 1: Earliest Islamic grave in Cemetery Tongerseweg, Maastricht (Photo by Christoph Jedan)

The grave is located in a section reserved for ‘heterodox’ people (andersdenkenden), viewed from the perspective of the dominant Roman Catholic culture of the southern Netherlands. The section contains very different graves as far as the world-views and ethnic backgrounds of the deceased are concerned: Protestants, socialists and free thinkers from the Maastricht area rest next to Asian migrants. Also, the graves in the ‘heterodox’ section have quite different spatial orientations. Overall, the section conveys the impression of being a slightly neglected, forgotten cemetery site; stringent rules of grave orientation seem to have been waived. Depending on the visitor’s perspective, one could bring a hermeneutic of suspicion to bear on this: If cemeteries in general are, with Foucault, a ‘heterotopia of deviation’ (hétérotopie de déviation), this section, surely, showcases a double exclusion: the general exclusion of the dead from the city of the living is exacerbated by the further exclusion of the heterodox dead from salutary cemetery regulations. However, one need not resort to that sort of suspicion. I, for one, have experienced the relaxation of order in a positive way, as rather attractive. If I had to choose a grave plot at cemetery Tongerseweg, it would certainly be in the heterodox section.

Heterodox grave Tongerseweg Maastricht, the Netherlans
Figure 2: Detail of ‘heterodox’ section, Tongerseweg, Maastricht (Photo by Christoph Jedan)

In any case, in this spatial context, the orientation towards Mecca of that early Islamic grave does not strike the visitor as special.

Islamic grave Tongerseweg Maastricht, the Netherlands
Figure 3: Detail of Islamic section, Tongerseweg, Maastricht (Photo by Christoph Jedan)

With the rise of Islamic funerals among the first generation of post-war Muslim migrants, a new, dedicated Islamic section was designed. The most interesting features of that new, dedicated Islamic section are, first, its relatively ‘open’ nature and continuity with the overall layout of the cemetery. The confines of the section are underscored by trees and short sections of hedges which do not completely cordon off the section. The rectangular, cross-shaped grid of the other cemetery paths carries over into this section. The second notable feature is the attempt to accommodate the Islamic ritual exigency of an orientation to Mecca by ‘slanting’ the graves relative to the paths.

A characteristically different attempt at integrating the relatively recent group of the Islamic deceased has been undertaken at roughly the same time in Cemetery Noorderbegraafplaats Leeuwarden, in the North of the Netherlands, historically dominated by Protestantism.

In Leeuwarden’s Noorderbegraafplaats, the Islamic section was integrated in an existing rectangular field, in continuity with the overall layout of the cemetery. However, the layout of the paths within the section is done so that an orientation of the graves towards Mecca would still allow a separate, rectangular grid of paths in the section.

Map Detail Islamic Section Noorderbegraafplaats cemetery Ljouwert Leeuwarden, the Netherlands
Figure 4: Detail of map Noorderbegraafplaats Leeuwarden (provided by Gemeente Leeuwarden) with Islamic Section (Photo by Christoph Jedan)

Low hedges – about one metre high – surround the section. Entrance gates further underscore the impression that one has entered a separate space.

Entrance Islamic Section Noorderbegraafplaats Cemetery Ljouwert Leeuwarden, the Netherlands
Figure 5: Entrance to Islamic Section, Noorderbegraafplaats Leeuwarden (Photo by Christoph Jedan)

Near the entrance, a canopied bier is placed for displaying the body.

Detail Islamic Section Noorderbegraafplaats Cemetery Ljouwert Leeuwarden, the Netherlands
Figure 6: Detail of Islamic section, Noorderbegraafplaats Leeuwarden (Photo by Christoph Jedan)

Currently an extension to this Islamic section is developed directly adjacent to the old one. Again, the main path is oriented in such a way that a rectangular grid can be maintained. A compass is painted onto the concrete to indicate the direction of Mecca.

Path Islamic section Noorderbegraafplaats Cemetery Ljouwert Leeuwarden, the Netherlands
Figure 7: Path Islamic section, Noorderbegraafplaats Leeuwarden (Photo by Christoph Jedan)

A comparison of Maastricht and Leeuwarden from an aesthetic and at the same time political perspective must remain a contentious affair. My personal hunch is that both cemeteries are good examples of what we will come to refer to as a ‘transitional style’ in the design of cemeteries: Migrants do not yet have an entirely separate cemetery, but are integrated in existing cemeteries. An overall Christian aesthetics prevails, but there are clear attempts at accommodating the newcomers’ needs within existing frameworks.

Such attempts come in different shapes and forms and, clearly, there is something to choose between the provisions provided in Maastricht and Leeuwarden. Arguably, the aesthetic norms of the ‘host’ society remain more visible in Cemetery Tongerseweg Maastricht, through the ‘open plan’ design of the Islamic section. This holds the danger of appearing to declare the aesthetic norms of the ‘host’ society sacrosanct, and of being perceived as making very limited exceptions for the sake of individuals. It could be perceived as placing the onus of integration on the newcomers and as signalling that the migrant deceased somehow ‘deviate’ from a perceived ‘normality’. At the same time, the open-plan design could also be understood in a more positive light as underscoring equality in death: all, irrespective of their faith are part of the Maastricht community.

In Leeuwarden, on the other hand, a more far-reaching attempt has been made to cater for the ritual needs of the Muslim minority. At the face of it, this is surprising in the historically Protestant North of the Netherlands, with its Protestant tradition of ritual restraint. However, this strategy of accommodation, too, comes at a price: in the Leeuwarden case, the Islamic community is separated through a number of markers (hedges, gates, ritual provisions) from the rest of the society of the dead.   

Figure 8: Detail of path, Islamic section, Noorderbegraafplaats Leeuwarden (Photo by Christoph Jedan)

I cannot answer the question of which model is preferable for you, the readers of this blog. Thus, let me ask you: what do you think? If you have clear preferences or ideas to share, please get in touch!

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