In most U.S. cities, homeless people without family or friends are laid to rest in an unmarked grave, in an isolated part of a cemetery. They are buried by city council workers, or even prisoners from a local penitentiary.
This impersonal send off has left some cities looking at Copenhagen, Denmark, which has found a way of giving its homeless some dignity, even if it is in death.
Two years ago, working with the advocacy group Giv Din Hånd (Give a Hand), the city set aside an 800-square-foot section of Copenhagen’s Assistens Cemetery for interring “street people.”
Assistens is a landscaped and popular green space in the middle of the capital, and also the final resting place of such famous Danes as Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen.
Before the establishment of the Assistens section, homeless individuals were cremated, with the remains placed in urns which were buried in anonymous cemetery plots. Cremation is a popular funeral option in Denmark, with fifty percent of Copenhagen’s residents buried this way.
Stine Helweg, a specialist in Copenhagen cemeteries, says the practice of using unmarked graves began in the 1920s and grew 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,” he says “But 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”.
Copenhagen’s homeless population used to memorialize their dead colleagues by hanging photographs of individuals on a particular tree in the city centre’s Kultorvet Square. When the city council “modernized” the square, cutting 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,” Espensen says. “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 adds that 100 years ago, the idea of a cemetery for homeless would not have been accepted, as Danish culture would have found placing rich and poor people together in death to be socially stigmatizing.
“But now, the tables have turned,” he says. “It’s empowering for the homeless.”
To date, 10 people have been cremated and buried in the Assistens section, near bronze sculptures of abstract figures where the homeless place flowers and hang photos of their deceased companions.
“Some homeless individuals have made it part of what they do every day,” says Helweg. “They collect flowers from flower shops and come with bouquets.”
Espensen says he would like to see similar graveyards in other European cities like Hamburg and Amsterdam. “There are a lot of homeless there,” he says.
“Copenhagen’s citizens have been nice about it,” he says, adding “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?’”