Examining cemeteries as public spaces of social inclusion, exclusion and integration


Cemeteries are multifunctional public spaces – funeral services are provided, loved ones are laid to rest – they are ‘sacred’ in the widest sense, but also frequently used as public parks – a diverse mix of people converge on these spaces of shared use. In Luxembourg City’s cemeteries conformity reigns, far from reflecting the diversity of the population. How this affects migrants and minorities is being explored as part of the international project ‘CeMi’, which examines the use and management of cemeteries as important but understudied public spaces.

Launched in 2019, the collaborative research project ‘CeMi: Cemeteries and Crematoria as public spaces of belonging in Europe: a study of migrant and minority cultural inclusion, exclusion and integration’ brings together eight principal investigators in five countries and explores cemeteries in eight cities, including Luxembourg.

The International project with Luxembourg participation from historian Prof Dr Sonja Kmec from the University of Luxembourg, examines cemeteries and crematoria ‘gardens’ as public spaces of social inclusion, exclusion and integration, with a particular focus on migrant and established minority experience, needs and provision, and how these intersect with established practices in the North West of Europe.

Conformity reigns at Luxembourg’s cemeteries

One of the case-studies is Luxembourg City, characterised by a high degree of diversity. Around 70% of the residents of the city are non-nationals, spanning more than 160 nationalities. While this diversity is visible and audible in the streets, conformity reigns in the city’s cemeteries.

In Luxembourg, it is a legal obligation to bury the remains at the cemetery of the district of residence (with some exceptions). All 13 cemeteries are owned by the municipality, most graves look similar, conforming to a certain style: the many cultures and nationalities are not visually reflected in the grave design.

A look at Luxembourg’s Bonnevoie cemetery

One of the most diverse districts of Luxembourg City is Bonnevoie, the most populated and most multicultural district of Luxembourg. Situated behind Luxembourg’s central train station, Bonnevoie was once a neighbourhood of mainly working-class Luxembourgish and Italian, then Portuguese inhabitants.

“It is now home to a high number of migrants from all over the world and has been partially gentrified. In the streets of Bonnevoie, cultures, nationalities and religions meet and mix,” explain Kmec and Westerndorp.

“This makes wandering around Bonnevoie cemetery all the more interesting. Here, the gravestones can roughly be divided into four categories – not nearly representative of the vast level of diversity that is to be seen in the street”.

“The diversity that marks everyday life in the district so far is unrepresented in death”

The earliest grave at Bonnevoie cemetery date back to the late 19th and early 20th century. The gravestones are overall large and high, made of stone or marble, and decorated with crosses and statues of Christ and various representations of the Virgin Mary. CREDIT: All pictures by Mariske Westendorp, 2019

“Typical” Luxembourgish graves, mostly family graves. A more sober late 20th century design with Catholic influence. Covered by thick marble slabs, often in a dark grey colour, often only the family name is displayed. With dates of births and deaths are increasingly excluded, it is impossible to know who or even how many members of a family are buried in such graves.

Bonnevoie has many graves from migrants from southern European countries and their descendants. The graves of members of these minority groups stand out: their shapes are different, and they are made of different materials and colours.

Few and far between, some graves stand out: This black cross of one Russian Orthodox grave stands in clear contrast to the rest of the cemetery. Other minority groups seem absent from the cemetery.

While the development of Bonnevoie’s population over time, religion included, is reflected in the different graves, the more recent expansion in nationalities is not. Bonnevoie is home to a large variety of migrants from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. The migrants are of Christian, Islamic, and other religious backgrounds.

“These minorities seem to have no graves at this cemetery – the diversity that marks everyday life in the district so far is unrepresented in death for a variety of reasons that are being elucidated in the course of this project. One reason may be that most migrants living in Bonnevoie are still recent migrants to the city, and still young. If that is the case, one could only wonder what a cemetery like Bonnevoie would look like in another fifty years.” – Prof Dr Sonja Kmec

Exploring how conformity affects migrants and established minorities

‘How does this ‘materiality of conformity’ affect migrants and established minorities?’ ask researchers Prof Dr Sonja Kmec (University of Luxembourg) and Dr Mariske Westendorp (University of Groningen). Through individual and focus group interviews, the researchers for example explore whether this bureaucratised conformity suppresses the existing diversity in Luxembourg’s society, or whether it may be appreciated as practical guidance in “securing a place”.

‘What agency do the bereaved have in deciding on forms of burial and how does Catholic normativity and heritage continue to shape the commemoration of the dead?’ ‘How does that compare internationally?’ are also questions being answered:

“In the past years, the bereaved have increasingly been able to decide on forms of burial and generally appreciate the efficient management of funerals and grave plots. However, there are also tensions due to standardisation. In an international comparison, Luxembourg has the most rigid regulatory framework,” Kmec explains.

Read the 2021 policy brief by Prof Dr Sonja Kmec & Mariske Westendorp
[Kmec, S., Westendorp, M. (2021) Briefing Note: Cemeteries and Crematoria. Creating inclusive public spaces in Luxembourg, http://cemi-hera.org]
One of the recommendations presented by Kmec and Westendorp in a newly-published policy brief, is for rules and informal regulations to be more flexible, with the view to accommodate culturally diverse practices, but also to allow more time, space, and solemnity to say farewell.

Toward diversity-ready cemeteries

What value can this research have? Improving the understanding of varied meanings, uses and practices through dialogue and co-production of management strategies will enhance cross-cultural understanding and interaction, and inform planning for diversity-ready cemeteries.

CeMi focuses on eight large municipalities across six countries in North-West Europe, each with a similar size population, as well as a significant proportion of foreign-born and/or ethnic minorities.

The researchers use a mix of participatory research methods to study issues and experiences from multiple perspectives – from cemetery and crematoria providers, to planners, civil society organisations as well as grassroots users.

CeMi was featured as HERA’s “Project of the Month” in October 2021. Luxembourg participation in the project “Cemeteries and Crematoria as public spaces of belonging in Europe: a study of migrant and minority cultural inclusion, exclusion and integration” (CeMi) is supported by the FNR’s INTER programme, specifically the ‘HERA: Public Spaces: Culture and Integration in Europe’ Call. The project started in 2019 and runs until 2022. Luxembourg PI/coordinator is Prof Dr Sonja Kmec from the University of Luxembourg. Find out more about this project on cemi-hera.org





CREDIT: Sonja Kmec
Luxembourg participation in the CEMI project is supported by the FNR's INTER programme. https://cemi-hera.org/


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