Of barriers and benches: A visitor’s experience

How one experiences cemeteries is highly personal. Only through open, extensive conversations may we understand what a cemetery might mean for a person, and what he or she might be missing at these places. The narrative below illustrates a particular case that should not be generalized. However, it may help us to avoid overly rash assumptions and to question categorizations.

“The problem”, Selima R. [name changed by the author] calls it. By that, she means her husband’s death, and in particular his very sudden passing away. She misses him every day and often goes to the cemetery, bringing flowers, saying prayers. Not just for her husband, but prayers for the others as well: “It doesn’t make sense to go there for him, recite the fatiha [the short opening surah of the Qur’an used by Muslims as a prayer] and neglect the others”. There was no problem with the funeral or the grave site, she insists. Both the undertaker and the cemetery administration were very helpful. There was a space for ritual washing at the cemetery, the imam said prayers and her husband was buried in the city of Luxembourg, where she could visit him frequently. Repatriation was not an option. He wouldn’t have wanted to go back to the country they had fled in fear of their lives some twenty years ago. If he had been buried in the main part of the cemeteries, Selima wouldn’t have minded, on the contrary. She was rather surprised to find out about the “distance” of the Muslim section. By that she means the physical distance as well as the separation from the others. She doesn’t like “communautarisme”. She says it in French and means the idea of closed-off parallel communities: “I don’t like that, that it is separate from the others. Yes, we get along well, but I am a very open person, I hate borders and barriers”. Still, by default, her husband was buried in a separate Muslim section. What she was missing was a choice.

Merl Islamic Section
Photo: cemetery of Merl, Muslim section, October 2019 (Photo: Mariske Westendorp)

The choice to be buried among the others, maybe with a different orientation to observe religious practice. But so many practices are adapted for pragmatic reasons anyways: there is a coffin not a shroud, there are at least 48 hours before the burial. One needs to adapt, Selima says. But, she reflects, maybe the mixing would not be well received, by either side. She likes the park-like design of the cemetery at Merl and goes there on All Saints as well as before Ramadan, on the Eid [celebrating the end of a month-long fast throughout Ramadan] and the feast of Mawlid [commemorating the birthday of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad]. What she is missing is a place to sit.

In the main part of the cemetery, there are many benches. Here, in the “carré musulman” there are just a couple of chairs someone brought for the elderly to sit. “I am not that old but I also use these chairs. They are not mine, but I get tired when I do my round. And when I’m tired, I take a chair and I sit here and think”, she explains. Benches are the one thing she misses. The other one are signposts. Her friends always have problems to locate the grave. It is indeed difficult to find one’s way around the large cemetery in general and the Muslim section in particular: it is peripheral and rather hidden.

This exchange illustrates a wider point this project is interested in: how important are specific equipment and provisions in the public space that is the cemetery? How can cemetery managers and undertakers facilitate religious compliance without imposing it? How can diversity within diversity be accommodated and communities be provided for without reifying them? It is important to include cemetery visitors in discussions on how to improve the facilities. And maybe one needs to think outside the box. One suggestion would be to follow the example of a cemetery of Groningen (Selwerderhof), in the Netherlands, which includes a so-called “free field”. That section is open to everyone and allows for all types of graves and grave orientations.

Photo: the 'free field' at the Selwerderhof in Groningen, July 2019 (Photo: Sonja Kmec)
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