Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
Why Copenhagen gave a section of the city’s most famous cemetery to its street community.
At the end of Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie, the ruined, homeless George Hurstwood commits suicide in a New York City flophouse. "A slow, black boat setting out from the pier at Twenty-seventh Street upon its weekly errand bore, with many others, his nameless body to the Potter's Field,” wrote Dreiser. More than a century later, such anonymous burials in “potters’ fields” for the indigent or unknown are still generally the norm in U.S. cities.
But across the Atlantic, the city of Copenhagen has found a more dignified way of laying its homeless to rest. Two years ago, in response to a request from the advocacy organization Giv Din Hånd—or Give a Hand—the city set aside an 800-square-foot section of Assistens Cemetery for interring “street people.” Assistens, a beautifully landscaped and beloved green space in a central area of the capital, is the final resting place of such Danish luminaries as Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard.
Before the establishment of the Assistens section, the city interred homeless individuals’ cremains in urns in anonymous cemetery plots. Around 50 percent of Copenhagen’s residents are in fact buried this way, often continuing a family tradition in a particular cemetery. The practice of using unmarked graves emerged in the 1920s from the Danish regard for social democracy and collective movements. “As you stood shoulder to shoulder with someone you didn’t know when you were alive, you would choose the same concept when you died,” says Stine Helweg, a specialist in the cemeteries of Copenhagen. For homeless individuals, however, such a burial was a mandate, not a choice, and any friends or family they might have had often ended up with no knowledge of an anonymous plot’s location.
As such, Copenhagen’s homeless population used to memorialize their dead by hanging photographs of individuals on a particular tree in Kultorvet Square, in the city’s center. When the local government modernized the square and cut down the tree, Michael Espensen of Giv Din Hånd wanted to find a proper place for burials and memorials. “A family graveyard is where you can talk about the old ones and remember,” says Espensen. “It’s the same for the homeless. And because most of the homeless don’t have family, their friends on the street become their family.”
Helweg notes that 100 years ago, the idea for a homeless cemetery would have been rejected, as Danish culture would have found putting poor people together in death socially stigmatizing. “But now, the tables have turned,” she says. “It’s empowering for the homeless.”
So far, 10 people have been cremated and buried in the Assistens section, which features a bronze sculpture of a group of abstract figures upon which the homeless place flowers and hang photos of their deceased compatriots. “Some homeless individuals have made it part of what they do every day,” says Helweg. “They collect flowers from flower shops and come with 20 bouquets.”
Espensen says he’d like to see similar graveyards in other European cities like Amsterdam and Hamburg. “There are a lot of homeless there,” he says.
If the public’s response in those cities is anything like that of Copenhagen, it could happen. “Copenhagen’s citizens have been nice about it,” Espensen says. “You know, everybody needs to belong. The homeless, too. And people can relate to this. They say, ‘Oh, right, we’ve got our family grave, so why not them, too?’”