A Place for the Homeless to Honor Their Dead

  • 2015-12-30
  • CityLab

At the end of Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie, the ruined, homeless George Hurstwood commits suicide in a New York City flophouse. "A slow, black boat setting out from the pier at Twenty-seventh Street upon its weekly errand bore, with many others, his nameless body to the Potter's Field,” wrote Dreiser. More than a century later, such anonymous burials in “potters’ fields” for the indigent or unknown are still generally the norm in U.S. cities.

But across the Atlantic, the city of Copenhagen has found a more dignified way of laying its homeless to rest. Two years ago, in response to a request from the advocacy organization Giv Din Hånd—or Give a Hand—the city set aside an 800-square-foot section of Assistens Cemetery for interring “street people.” Assistens, a beautifully landscaped and beloved green space in a central area of the capital, is the final resting place of such Danish luminaries as Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard.

Before the establishment of the Assistens section, the city interred homeless individuals’ cremains in urns in anonymous cemetery plots. Around 50 percent of Copenhagen’s residents are in fact buried this way, often continuing a family tradition in a particular cemetery. The practice of using unmarked graves emerged in the 1920s from the Danish regard for social democracy and collective movements. “As you stood shoulder to shoulder with someone you didn’t know when you were alive, you would choose the same concept when you died,” says Stine Helweg, a specialist in the cemeteries of Copenhagen. For homeless individuals, however, such a burial was a mandate, not a choice, and any friends or family they might have had often ended up with no knowledge of an anonymous plot’s location.