It was a crisp March morning as I headed out from the hotel. This was my third visit to Copenhagen and I was here for the entire week. I visited a number of notable (and beautiful) attractions on this visit. I saw The Little Mermaid statue, Frederick’s Church and the Round Tower — all of which lent themselves well to photographs. And, by the end of the week, I had managed to check most of the typical tourist sites off of my list. But one remained — Assistens Cemetery.
Assistens Cemetery has a rich history — once a burial site for paupers and the poor. By the eighteenth century, it had become a popular attraction for local citizens who would often visit with picnic baskets and enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon in the sun. And I must add, it is truly a beautiful spot. Thinking of Danes picnicking in the sun on a summer afternoon in a cemetery is an interesting thought. This is clearly a culture that views (or once viewed) death quite differently from my own culture here in America. The local cemetery wouldn’t be a top consideration for a picnic spot here in America.
America does, however, have a certain fascination or curiosity surrounding death and cemeteries. Here in Chicago, you can tour a number of cemeteries to include a haunted tour that will lead you to the grave of Al Capone. In New Orleans, graveyard tours are quite common as many of the cemeteries are quite historic and a natural attraction. I even spent some time in a New Orleans Cemetery a few years ago photographing the rich history. But while Americans might visit a cemetery to see a celebrity grave or to tour the historic resting place of the dead, they aren’t places we normally go to for recreation.
Denmark’s Assisten’s Cemetery is designed a bit like a combination of garden and graveyard. It’s not entirely unlike anything you might find in America…but uncommon. The beauty was lost on a late winter day for me. I was there in early March and Spring had yet to “sprung.” But it was easy to picture leaves on the trees and the landscaping in full bloom. I could understand why the Danish might come to such a beautiful spot for a day in the sun.
Today, people are more likely to travel to Assistens to visit the graves of famous Danish citizens. Hans Christian Andersen and Christen Kobke are a likely attraction for many tourists and local Danes. The father of Danish painting, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, is also interred at Assistens. I, however, was here to visit Soren Kierkegaard.
As an undergraduate studying Post-Modern philosophy, Kierkegaard was required reading. He is largely considered to be the first existentialist. I tore through an entire book outlining his work, his thoughts and his significance in the modern landscape of philosophy. I found his thoughts intriguing and his writing prolific.
I fondly remember one quote from Kierkegaard, which truly struck me in my readings:
“Where am I? Who am I? How did I come to be here? What is this thing called the world? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And If I am compelled to take part in it, where is the director? I want to see him.”
How could one read that quote and not be forced to think deeply about our time and existence? It was this quote that was in my head as I trekked my way over to the cemetery. There is quite an irony in visiting the grave of an existentialist. This wasn’t lost on me as I searched for his final resting place.
The Assistens Cemetery has signs directing you to the plots of the famous. Some are easier to find than others. Kierkegaard was not easy to find and it took me a rather long time of tracing and retracing my steps before I was finally able to locate his grave.
And then I was there. All alone standing over the grave of someone I had studied so much and never realizing I might have the opportunity to visit his final resting spot. It wasn’t as if I were meeting him, but then again it was still a moment where you feel connected in some way that you weren’t before. What is it about visiting these graves that makes us feel this way? There has to be something — some sort of connection people feel. Otherwise, why visit the grave of Al Capone, Jim Morrison, James Dean or Elvis?
If anything else, visiting the grave of someone who was famous or who unknowingly had a profound impact on your life can be nothing more than a way to connect with them, remember their work or remind you of your own mortality. But maybe we are just attracted to the fame just as we would flock to them in life. I, however, thought differently that morning.
I stood at his grave for quite sometime. And, in such moments, this one thought always seems to creep in my mind. Somewhere beneath 8 feet of earth lies the remains of a person whom I connected with in some way. Those remains were once alive and moving about this space — this earth. And I will soon suffer the same fate as this poor soul.
To say Kierkegaard is lucky is a bit ironic — not quite as ironic as visiting the grave of an existentialist though. He is, after all, dead. How lucky can you be if you are dead? But, Kierkegaard has been dead 160 years. And people still visit him.
As I was readying myself to leave that morning, a Danish man walked up and sat on a bench across from his grave. He lit up a cigarette and I snuck a glance in his direction. He appeared to be thinking and focusing on that one tombstone — the tombstone of Soren Kierkegaard.
On my walk back, I wondered and then doubted if anyone would visit my grave 160 years after my death.