They may be the nameless and forsaken people of society, but on Monday, the city’s homeless were given a place of remembrance in Copenhagen’s most hallowed ground when a burial plot dedicated to the people of the street was opened at Assistens Kirkegård cemetery in Nørrebro.
The social affairs minister, Annette Vilhelmsen (Socialistisk Folkeparti), and the city’s deputy mayor for technical and environment affairs, Ayfer Baykal (SF), joined about 75 homeless people and their supporters for the opening of the cemetery plot – the final step of a plan that goes back two years.
“The cemetery for the people of the streets is a good initiative that will positively affect a lot of people, and I want to extend my appreciation for the work that has gone into securing it,” Vilhelmsen told The Copenhagen Post. “Life on the street is tough, but we have to remember that it also includes friendship and community, and it requires a place where people can remember one another.”
Buried alongside HC Andersen
The initiative, called ‘Gravplads for Gadens Folk’ (A cemetery for the people of the street), has been two years in the making and was supported by a number of private donors, including the social support fund, Himmelblå-Fonden, which includes famed musician Kim Larsen as one of its board members.
Baykal praised the initiative, saying that Copenhagen should be a place for everyone, regardless of their background.
“It’s important that the unity that the homeless people need can be maintained by coming here and remembering their friends,” Baykal said. “There are great people buried here, like HC Andersen, but it is also a cemetery that is available for everyone.”
The cemetery plot was also supported by the artist Leif Sylvester Petersen, who donated a bronze sculpture that he named ‘En engel i blandt os’ (An angel amongst us). The city church Vor Frue Kirke will cover any expenses connected with the burials.
The 75 square metre plot of land is located in Mindeparken at Assistens Kirkegård in Nørrebro, an area where many homeless people spend much of their time.
“Just like you and me”
Michael Espensen, the head of the homeless advocate association Giv din hånd, which has headed the initiative, said the cemetery may not only be the first of its kind in the world, but gives society’s most vulnerable something that every person should be able to enjoy.
“The vast majority of the homeless don’t have a family – they’ve been written off – so their fellow homeless friends become their family,” Espensen said. “And they are just like you and me. They need a place to come and remember their friends and loved ones.”
Until now, when a homeless person passed away it was handled by the City Council, and they were buried in random cemeteries, wherever there was room and where it was cheapest.
A place of remembrance
The homeless have not had a place they could remember their dead friends since the city removed the homeless people’s remembrance tree, ‘de hjemløses mindetræ’, from Kultorvet square near Nørreport Station a few years ago.
The tree was a social hotspot where the homeless could meet and get news and information that mattered to them. And when one of them passed away, their friends hung a picture of the individual from the branches of the tree so that they could remember the times they shared together.
“But the tree was cut down because it didn’t fit with the international standards that were expected of the city. It didn’t fit in, it didn’t belong,” Espensen said. “Just like the homeless.”
Salomon Isaksen’s legacy
Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard are among the noteworthy who are buried in the cemetery, but it was Salomon Isaksen who was the most important person of this particular day.
Isaksen, a homeless man originally from Greenland who passed away three weeks ago at the age of 45, became the first person to be buried in the new plot. His ashes were laid into the ground just minutes after the unveiling.
Carrying lit candles, a large contingency of homeless folk gathered to view the unveiling of the cemetery plot and bury their friend. Emotions ran high when the group assembled to bid their farewells to Isaksen as Jimmy Colding from the band Zididada sang ‘Happy Fool’ – the unofficial song of the homeless.
A place to say goodbye
A homeless man who only gave his name as Bo, who lived in the same council-appointed building as Isaksen, said that the cemetery was important to the homeless because it gave them an opportunity to have a place to cherish the memory of their friends.
"It means a lot. It means that when we pass away, our friends have a chance to meet up and say goodbye, a place to remember,” Bo said. “Salamon was always happy, always smiling, and it’s nice that we can come and drink a beer with him, especially on his birthday and for Christmas or New Year’s. That’s something that keeps us and our unity going strong.”
According to the national social research centre, Det Nationale Forskningscenter for Velfærd, as of 2011 there were 5,290 homeless people living in Denmark, half of whom reside in the capital region. Every second homeless person is believed to have lived on the streets for more than a year.
The decision to set aside part of Assistens Kirkegård for the homeless follows in the footsteps of a petition to make part of Vestre Kirkegård a non-religious cemetery.