ERMELO, Gelderland, Netherlands – They’re a silent testimony of lives once lived. Anything but untouched by time, yet carrying the impression of being timeless and unchanging.
The two old cemeteries of the Veldwijk psychiatric hospital in Ermelo provide a fascinating glimpse into history.
The first funeral took place in August 1887 at the so-called ‘Old Cemetery.’ In 1906, the ‘New Cemetery’ was taken into use, having its first funeral in 1908.
Some rather well-known people are buried at those graveyards, the most expressive example probably being Willemina van Gogh, sister of famous painter Vincent van Gogh.
The larger New Cemetery is much better kept, still looking much more like a cemetery, with recognizable lanes and different sections. Its weather-beaten gravestones of loved ones long forgotten provide an illustration of the unrelenting passing of time.
Situated in the middle of the woods, there’s an incredible sense of peace and serenity. There’s no one around. People are cycling or walking at the paths nearby, but the graveyard itself is pretty much deserted. A small rabbit quickly crosses the path between two rows of graves and the only sounds are those of birds hopping through dry leafs. They’re signs of blooming life in this territory of the dead.
At the Old Cemetery, dilapidation is even more evident. Only a small number of the original gravestones are left. It’s almost like they’ve been randomly dropped. Some headstones are broken. Inscriptions of names and dates are often hardly readable, faded away by time like the memory of those who are buried beneath it. Despite the Old Cemetery’s location next to a busy road and railway track, you can sense the same sort of rest and quiet as at the New Cemetery.
Both cemeteries are far from being forgotten, though.
In 2008, the Stichting Begraafplaatsen Veldwijk-Ermelo (Foundation Cemeteries Veldwijk-Ermelo) was founded. Its mission is to preserve the graveyards and teach people about them.
Before Gert Hofsink, chairman of the foundation, took interest in the cemeteries in 1995, there wasn’t much being done to maintain them.
“No one really knew what to do with them,” he explained.
In 2004, the cemeteries were put on a list of monuments, securing their existence.
According to Hofsink, it’s incredibly important for the both graveyards to be preserved.
“Here lies the history of Veldwijk,” he said.
Except for its historical value, there’s another reason why he thinks it so important to safeguard the cemeteries: a commitment to those who were buried here.
“It’s an eternal resting place,” Hofsink said. “That should be respected.”
One of the ways the foundation tries to bring more attention to the cemeteries is by organizing tours.
“We want to convey respect and curiosity for this place to people.” Hofsink said.
Many people still think of graveyards as scary and morbid places. According to Hofsink, this fear comes from the horror image of graveyards, as projected in books and movies.
“Also, people often link graveyards with a loved one they’ve lost,” said Natalie Overkamp, the foundation’s secretary.
By providing more information, they want to show people there’s also a beautiful side to these old graveyards. Both Hofsink and Overkamp have noticed that the more information becomes availabe about the graveyards, the more curious people become.
They also educate Ermelo’s youth about the cemeteries, with special projects at elementary schools.
“When you tell them the stories behind the graves, kids often find it very interesting,” Overkamp said.
In addition to this, the foundation is also working on a book about the stories of the people who are buried here.
“We want to give these headstones a face by telling their stories, ” Hofsink said. “And not only those of the well-known people, but also of others with an interesting life story.”
And stories there are many, like that of a woman who lost seven children and her husband, before she ended up in the psychiatric hospital.
Now is a good time to unravel these stories, since there very rarely still are people who can provide first-hand information about someone who’s been buried here. “Sometimes there’s someone in a family who occupies himself with genealogy,” Hofsink said. “It’s good when you can get in touch with someone like that.”
During the Second World War, Veldwijk had many patients who had been evacuated from hospitals in other parts of the Netherlands. Some ended up being buried at Veldwijk. A number of them were reburied at the place they came from, but others are still there.
Another objective of the foundation is the restauration of the graveyards. After examination, it appears 55 graves are in need of restauration.
“We want to to stop further decay,” Hofsink said.
The intention is not to completely erase the traces time has left on the graves, because that’s also part of the charm, but there are damages that need to be repaired.
They also want to rebuild the foundation of the ‘baarhuisje’ at the Old Cemetery, a small morgue where bodies were kept before burial, also to make absolutely sure someone was really dead.
With the foundation clearly visible, people can easily imagine what it must have looked like back then.
A sad issue is that of the many nameless dead who are buried here. There’s only a small number of gravestones left at the Old Cemetery, but the number of people buried there is much bigger. It’s a sad thought, that even the last thing that marked someone’s presence on earth has faded away.
“We don’t think that’s fair,” said Hofsink.
He pointed to an empty space.
“Here’s someone grave as well,” he said, “but you just can’t tell.”
The foundation is considering making a sort of monument for those people, to give them a new memorial on the place where they’ve been laid to rest for eternity.
Caroline Nelissen is a Senior Reporter for Youth Journalism International.
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