Churchyards and Cemeteries in Denmark

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Churchyards and Cemeteries in Denmark

A typical Medieval church with surrounding churchyard: Stenløse Church, Odense County

As a part of your family history research you might want to find your ancestor's gravestones, but before you dig into cemetery research, it might be worth knowing a few things about churchyards and cemeteries in Denmark. This article covers some of the details about churchyards and cemeteries today as well historically.

Churchyards and Cemeteries today

Most burial grounds in Denmark are churchyards, in most cases surrounding the parish church. There are about 2.200 parishes in Denmark all with a parish church and churchyard, of which nearly all are still in use. Only a few are actual cemeteries, mainly in the capital of Copenhagen and some of the larger cities (previously called Marked Towns), where the churchyards at some time became full due epidemics or due to the large growth in population. The cemeteries usually have a small chapel which might be used for burial ceremonies. Nearly all churchyards and cemeteries in Denmark are public, and not many Danes are buried in private cemeteries or on private property due to rather strict regulation.

The gravestone might not be there...

Before you begin you should also be aware that many gravestones can't be found. This is mainly due to the facts, that there are not many gravestones dating back before 1850, AND, which may surprise you, that it is (and was) not possible to buy a plot in a Danish churchyard or cemetery. Plots can only be reserved, usually for a period of 20 years. If the family does not wish to reserve the plot for a longer period, the plot is discontinued and most gravestones are hereafter crushed into road fill. Plots can then be reused for a new burial after another 10 years, but in most cases there are at least 50 years between the same plot being reused for burial.

Gravestones of historical, cultural or artistic value are however now being preserved in cooperation with the National Museum of Denmark. In cases these gravestones has been moved from the original plot.

The history about Danish Churchyards and Cemeteries

During the middle ages and until the Romanticism in the beginning of the 1800s, the churchyard was not perceived the same way as it is today. In those days the graves were not marked individually but instead the churchyard were a simple grass field surrounded by the church stone wall. It was usual to see cattle grazing the graveyard, the field used for markets or political negotiations and in general the Parish graveyard had status as the common village green. During the 1500s Bishops sometimes had to emphasize that parishioners should show more respect for the dead and also to cut the grass, keep weeds away etc. from the graveyard. 

According to Danish folklore the churchyard was at night time a place associated with ghosts and evil spirits (e.g. the "Helhest", a tree-legged horse), so no one wanted to go there after dark.

There were occasional mounts, simple grave markers or wooden crosses, mostly without names, but just indicating were the graves were located. Excommunicates, suicides, and unbaptized parishioners were buried outside the graveyard.

Burials inside the church were reserved those who could afford it, often aristocrats, clergy, wealthy merchants, or distinguished people in the parish. Inside burials, in chapels or in the floor, were banned from 1805 due to general enlightenment, a better knowledge of hygiene and concerns about the obnoxious smell. The memorials of the aristocrats etc., the so-called epitaphs, can be found inside many churches.

The churchyard becomes a place to mourning and remembrance.

Around the beginning of the 1800s the churchyard became more "holy"; a "garden for the dead", and a place to mourn and to remember the family members who passed away. The individual plots were marked more precisely, and gravestones were introduced marking the individual graves, however it is rare to find gravestones before 1850. Real life social hierarchy were transferred to the graveyard and memories, feelings, status, rank and family relation where orchestrated by the descendants resulting in cast iron grave enclosures, monuments, aboveground crypts and hedges etc. The graves began being decorated with flowers and wreaths etc.

Location of the grave or family plot on the graveyard were very important, and graves placed closest nearest the church entrance (facing south) were considered more prestigious by the parishioners. 

From 1922 the systematic ordered plots and straight paths were introduced.

New Cemeteries were established

As the capital of Copenhagen and the larger cities (Market Towns) grew rapidly in size, churchyards inside the city walls were either abandoned or became full because of the various epidemics, such as cholera such. The local authorities therefore established new cemeteries in (at that time) the outskirts of the city.

In Copenhagen there were also cemeteries specifically for Army (Garnisons Cemetery, 1662) and Navy (Holmens Cemetery, 1662, among others). In the beginning it was reserved for poor personnel and their families, but later the cemeteries came in use for army/navy personnel of all ranks and status.

Private burials or private cemeteries

As mentioned earlier, not many Danes are buried outside the public churchyards or cemeteries. Historically the authorities has been very strict issuing permission. Some of the private cemeteries have historically been owned by institutions, for example lunatic asylums, but also a few squires/estate owners have been granted permission to make a private cemetery reserved for their family on their estate. In all cases it has been on consecrated ground.

Also only a few private burials outside the churchyards and cemeteries has been allowed, examples are the poet Holger Drachmann, the poet and novelist Jeppe Aakjær and the writer Karen Blixen. Nowadays land owners, owning more than 5000 square meter (1,25 acres) of land, may apply for private burials.

In the resent decades it has been allowed for everyone to have their ashes scattered at sea.

A few numbers and facts...

  • 500,000

    ...Danes emigrated up to 1968, and of these about 70% departed for the USA. In the 1800's alone a vast majority of 90% went to the USA. Read more...

  • 261,065

    This many individuals, comprising of 4.6 percent of all Danes, carries the surname JENSEN followed by NIELSEN, HANSEN, PEDERSEN and ANDERSEN. Read more...

  • 1,000

    Of the 5,000 basic words in modern English, as many as 20 percent are so-called loan words from the Old Norse language (ON). Read more...

  • 1769

    This year the first Danish census was taken. The next censuses were taken in 1787 and 1801 and from 1834 onwards every 5-10 years. Read more...

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