During the Middle Ages and until the Romanticism at the beginning of the 1800s, the graveyard was not designed the same way as it is today. The graveyard was a simple grass field surrounded by the church stone wall. There were some monuments, simple grave markers or wooden crosses, mostly without names, just indicating where the graves were located. Excommunicates, suicides, and unbaptized parishioners were buried outside the graveyard. Burials inside the church were reserved for those who could afford it, often aristocrats or distinguished people in the parish.
Around the beginning of the 1800s the graveyard became more a place to mourn and remember the family members who passed away. The individual plots were marked more precisely, and gravestones were introduced, marking the individual graves. Inside burials, in chapels or in the floor, were banned after 1805 due to general enlightenment, and better knowledge of hygiene.
From 1922 the systematic ordered plots and straight paths as we know today were introduced. The plots were surrounded by miniature boxwood hedges and inside the plot were planted flower beds and sometimes small trees.
Facts About Current Practices
There are about 2,400 churches in Denmark and almost all of them have a graveyard, of which nearly all are still in use. Only a few are actual cemeteries, mainly in the capital, Copenhagen, and some of the larger cities, as some of the graveyards over time became full due to epidemic or the large growth in population.
Nearly 99% of all graveyards and cemeteries in Denmark are public and owned and maintained by the state church, named The Church of Denmark or Danish National Church. The religion is Lutheran Evangelic.
As of 2016, 77% of the Danes are members of the National Church, and 83% of the burials take place in the National Church. 78% of the Danes choose to be cremated.
Everybody can be buried in the graveyards belonging to the National Church, no matter what religion one might have. At some graveyards there are made separate sections for Muslims, Jews or other religions. There are also 11 Jewish cemeteries around the country and a newer large Muslim cemetery just outside Copenhagen.
Not many Danes are buried in private graveyards or on private property due to rather strict regulation. Land owners, owning more than 5000 square meter (1.24 acres) of land, can apply for private burials.
As of 2009, it has been legal to have your ashes scattered at sea, if you have applied for it before your death. About one out of ten chooses to have the burial like this.
Re-use the burial plots
With the limited space in the Danish graveyards, combined with a steady number of burials over many centuries, Danes have a practice of re-using burial plots. This goes only for the Danes, not for the Muslim or Jewish graves.
Plots can only be reserved, usually 20 years (with a casket burial), or 10 years (with an urn), unless the family wish to reserve the plot for another period. The gravestone is then removed and thereafter crushed into road fill. The plot can then be re-used for a new burial. The amount of time that passes before using the plot again, varies from each place as the soil conditions are different, but most churches let at least 10 years pass before using the plot again.
To this you must know that the Danish caskets are only made of wood or other perishable material. The caskets and urns are environment approved. No plastic or metal are used.
Today only 50 -“ 60 % of the plots are reserved by the family for another period.
From World War 2, about 1,000 English Airmen are buried in more than 100 different Danish graveyards. These graves will be preserved forever. Also many German soldiers are buried here. In the beginning the German soldiers were buried all over the country, but an agreement between the German and Danish Government in 1962 made sure that the German soldiers’ graves were moved to 34 common graves, so they also could be preserved forever.
Preserving Gravestones for Future Genealogists
Due to the facts above, many gravestones can’t be found. First, there are not many gravestones dating back before 1850 and second, when a plot is closed, the gravestone is removed.
However, gravestones of historical or cultural value are being preserved in cooperation with the National Museum of Denmark. And many graveyards have an area where they place some of the special gravestones or gravestones of important people from the parish.
What about the common people? In 2001 two wonderful people started a website with an overview of all cemeteries and gravestones in Denmark, www.dk-gravsten.dk It`s our Danish version of “Find a Grave”. They started the website themselves and took pictures of the gravestones in the area where they lived. More people wanted to help and expand the area and as of today 83% of the gravestones in all our cemeteries are photographed and transcribed. About 80 people have helped with this project so far, so we can preserve the gravestones and every genealogist can use the photos in their search for ancestors.
If you sign up to photograph a cemetery, you both take the pictures and transcribe the data before sending the file to the website. In Denmark, we may first publish photos of gravestones, when the person has been dead for 10 years, so that’s why it’s not connected to “Find a Grave” or “Billiongrave”. If there are more than one name on the gravestone, the release date of the picture is ten years after the latest death.
Every year people from the website go through the data from all the graveyards, so pictures that now have passed the ten years restriction and may be published, will be included in the online database.
And because of our culture of re-using plots, and the fact that today many people don’t rent the plot for a new period, many gravestones during the years has already disappeared. So this work is necessary to preserve pictures of gravestones for the coming generations of genealogists.
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