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26.10.2020

Assistens Cemetery, Copenhagen

The Assistens Cemetery (Danish: Assistens Kirkegård) in Copenhagen, Denmark, is the burial site for many Danish celebrities, as well as an important green area in the Nørrebro area. Opened ceremonially in 1760, it was originally a burial site for the poor to free the crowded cemeteries inside the walled city, but in the Golden Age it became fashionable in the first half of the 19th century and many of the leading figures of the era are buried here, such as Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, Christopher Wilhelm Eckersberg and Kristen Köbke.

At the end of the 19th century, when Assistens Cemetery itself became crowded, several new cemeteries were created around Copenhagen, including the Vestre Cemetery, but throughout the 20th century it continued to attract notable people. The latter included a physicist, Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr and a number of American jazz musicians who settled in Copenhagen in the 1950s and 1960s, including Ben Webster and Kenny Drew.

Assistenskirkegaard (which means "help cemetery" in Danish) is originally a generic term in Danish used to refer to cemeteries that were laid out to help existing burial sites, usually located in cities in connection with churches, and therefore a number of cemeteries of the same name are found throughout Denmark.

The cemetery is one of five cemeteries run by the Copenhagen municipality; other cemeteries are Vestre, Bronçoi, Sundby and Bispebjerg.

In medieval times, there was a rule of intra-quarter weaving, although open-air cemeteries were gradually becoming more common. In 1666, the naval cemetery Holmen was moved from the original location of the church Holmen to a place beyond the Eastern city gate as the first place of burial outside the city.

The outbreak of the plague in 1711, which claimed the lives of approximately 23,000 citizens, put so much pressure on existing burial sites that up to five coffins were sometimes buried on top of each other. This led to the creation of five new cemeteries on the outskirts of the city, but only inside the city walls, while the military garrison cemetery was moved to a site near the Kholmen cemetery.

In the 1750s, the situation further deteriorated, and in a letter dated May 2, 1757, the city council proposed to the chancellery to build a large new cemetery for parishes outside the city walls. After some negotiations, it was decided to place it behind the Northern City Gate, and on May 26, 1757 a new building was established under a royal charter. The new cemetery was ceremonially opened on November 6, 1760. It was surrounded by a wall built by Philippe de Lange.

Originally, the cemetery was designed to bury the poor. In 1785, Johan Samuel Augustine, a wealthy citizen, astronomical writer and first secretary of the military office, made specific requests for placement in the cemetery, stating in his codex that "Mein Begräbnis soll auf dem Armen-Kirchhofe vor dem Norderthor seyn, wesfalls ich sehon mit Mr. Simon, der dort Gräber ist, gesprochen habe". Soon it was followed by other elite leaders, and the cemetery soon became the most fashionable burial place in the city.

Around the same time, excursions to the cemetery with picnic baskets and tea became a popular pastime among ordinary Copenhageners. 

Excursions sometimes turned into noisy meetings, and to prevent this was adopted legislation. The commission, established in 1805, issued instructions prohibiting the consumption of food or drinks, as well as music or any other cheerful behavior in the cemetery. Gravediggers who lived in the cemetery were supposed to enforce these restrictions, but it seems that they took their duties lightly. The law of 1813 prohibited them from selling alcohol to cemetery visitors. Despite all these efforts, the desired peace and quiet was long overdue. Crowds of spectators gathered for especially grandiose funerals, and people placed garlands on cemetery walls to get a better view. To reduce the number of visitors, there was talk of introducing entrance fees, but it was never implemented.

The cemetery still serves its original purpose as a burial ground, but it is also a popular tourist attraction and the largest and most important green area in the interior of the Norrebro district.

It is divided into sections. The oldest part is section A, where the graves of Søren Kierkegaard and Kristen Köbke are located. Section D is dedicated to religious minorities and contains the graves of Roman Catholics and reformers, as well as Russian graves. Section E is a section that originally served the Church of Our Lady.

In 2003, an old stable in the corner of Assistens Cemetery was converted into a small museum of writer and artist Hermann Stilling, a native of Norrebro district, known mainly for painting trolls. In addition to the permanent exhibition, the museum has an exhibition space for special exhibitions, a painting studio for children and youth, and a cafe.

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