Love and Loss in Amsterdam’s Mortuary Museum

So, how do you keep a loved one’s memory alive? Do you keep a picture by your nightstand, or a folder of photos on your desktop? Do you listen to their favourite songs, or keep one of their favourite things in your pocket?

Or, do you display a bouquet made of their hair on your mantelpiece?

Sounds crazy? To us, yes, but to nineteenth and early twentieth-century Dutch mourners, it was a touching, if over-the-top, display of mourning and devotion. How the living treats the dead is one of the clearest markers of culture, period and humanity.

When you first see the bouquet in the third room of the Museum Tot Zover – Amsterdam’s mortuary museum – you might mistake it for a dried out array of flowers. It’s only when you look closer that the fine blonde, light brown and grey hairs distinguish themselves, and you either feel validated in your macabre fascination, or you get totally weirded out. This is the room of mourning oddities, and it details the rituals and practices that we might find morbid or downright creepy nowadays.

But for the rest, the Netherlands’ mortuary museum presents a very tasteful and respectful look at death and mourning in this most practical of countries. The exhibits are housed in a small, neat and starkly modern building that is tucked into an unobtrusive corner of one of the biggest and most beautiful cemeteries in Amsterdam, De Nieuwe Ooster.

De_Nieuwe_Ooster_Parkaanleg
Die Nieuwe Ooster Cemetery. Photo by Marion Golsteijn, from Wikimedia Commons.

Exploring the Museum:

The topic of death is broached gently here. When you arrive, you pass through the warm Café Roosenburgh, which serves hot drinks, juices and an array of baked goods. A set of dark double doors lead to the museum proper, but first you will be greeted by Freddy – a proud associate who will explain the rules (most important: no photos) and offer you an audio-guide. Unfortunately, there are no English audio-guides at the moment, but you can ask for an English (or other language) pamphlet that will explain the exhibits and collection.

There are four main themes: Rituals, The Body, Grief and Remembrance, and Memento Mori. Each theme has a dedicated room in which the visitor can come to grips with the different aspects of death and mourning.

There are some odd bits among the culturally specific funeral displays and the explanations of Dutch mourning rituals. Most of them are housed in the ‘Grief and Remembrance’ section, which sports, among other things, death masks, jewellery made of the deceased’s hair, objects made of the deceased’s ashes and an embalmed hand tucked into a corner. The pride of Museum Tot Zover, however, is its collection of miniature hearses. This display includes modern, sleek black limousines and ornate coaches from the 1800s.

Carriage-gnu
Horse-drawn funeral hearse with driver, circa 1900 courtesy of Neil Regan Funeral Home, Scranton, PA

Photos of Love and Loss:

The first room is usually dedicated to the museum’s temporary exhibit. When I visited in April, 2016, it was Post Mortem: Foto’s vol Liefde en Verdriet (Post Mortem: Photos of Love and Loss). This touching exhibit displayed Paul Frecker’s collection of post-mortem photographs, which is currently the biggest collection in Europe. It contains a range of historical photos from the 1800s through to the early 1900s.  

Post-mortem photos were common in the days before everyone owned a camera. For some, a post-mortem photo was the only likeness of their loved one in existence. The majority of post-mortem photos show young children who died before they had a chance to have their portraits taken in life. This is why most of Frecker’s collection is made up of photos that seem to display children sleeping. Viewing this collection is a surreal exercise in reminding yourself that the sleeping subject is actually dead, and that this morbid-seeming reminder was the only thing their family had to remember them by.

Post_mortemNFB.14855
Post mortem-photography of a young Norwegian girl. Photographed in 1911 by Gustav Borgen. Photo collection, Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo.

Nowadays:

Currently, the museum is hosting an exhibit called Especially For You, which features the erotic advertisements of Cofani Funebri, an Italian coffin maker. The exhibit seeks to explore the relationship between death and commercialisation. The advertisements feature scantily clad women posing on top of ‘trendy’ coffins, and exhibit poses the question: how does one make one of the most fearsome objects desirable? The answer, seemingly, is that there are three certain things in life: death, taxes, and the fact that sex sells.

Post-mortem_photograph_of_young_child_with_flowers
Nineteenth-century photograph, on whole plate glass negative, modern print (by Justin Cormack) on printing-out paper, gold toned.

So why would you want to visit a museum about death and mourning? Apart from a macabre interest in the topic, it’s difficult to think of a reason. It was only when I actually visited the museum and experienced the exhibits that I understood what such a display could mean for someone.

This museum aims to portray death and mourning in a sensitive and open way that will allow people to gain a greater understanding of how we process loss. It is much more of a comfort than a curiosity, and although your morbid fascination might be satisfied by a few items in the collection, there is far more to this small museum than the cheap thrill of romanticising death.

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