Several of the students and I headed to a rather unusual tourist spot in Amsterdam, Tot Zover: The Netherlands Uitvaart Museum, or Museum of Exit. The facility is devoted to death and funeral traditions in Holland and was of interest because of our group’s focus on sustainability practices. The development of more sustainable burials and cremations is one outcome of the green movement, so I wanted a glimpse of how the Dutch have traditionally addressed the passing on of a life.
Unsurprisingly, Uitvaart is located just inside the gates of a cemetery in a quiet neighborhood. The museum is filled with an array, albeit somewhat disconnected, of emblems of the funeral experience. The first room was filled with photographs of hearses from various eras, followed by miniature toy models in the next room (some models being available for purchase in the lobby).
Visitors are then presented with a display of five wooden coffins, each providing details about various funeral traditions: the personal funeral (planned in advance by the deceased), and then rituals of the Surinamese Hindu, Chinese Buddhist, Muslim, and Dutch Roman Catholic traditions. Mortician apparel and tools round out the second room. On special display throughout the hallways was a series of photos called “Images of Death,” which included the photos of famous (for instance, Steve Jobs and Princess Diana) and everyday people taken shortly before their deaths. The idea behind the exhibit was the transience of life, especially revealing in photos of people smiling and laughing without any idea that within seconds (in some instances) their lives would end.
A final room in the museum was perhaps the most eerie. On display were death masks, photographs of the deceased (part of a tradition during the Victorian era known as memorial portraiture or mourning portraits), mourning apparel (black dresses and veils), and trinkets that could be worn or displayed to honor the passing of a loved one.
As we left the museum, the woman who had given us our tickets at the start of the tour (and who, quite frankly, was a tad creepy and dressed head to toe in black with just a hint of red) pulled me aside to tell me about a new feature available in the chapel to the right of the museum.
“If families wish, and for an extra fee,” she told me, “at the end of the service the casket can be raised off the podium and will rise into the ceiling which is opened. That way, they can see their loved one going up there instead of down there.” She pointed her finger up and down for emphasis as she explained.
Placing her hand beside her mouth, she added in a whisper: “Of course, the ovens are up there, but still it is a nice option.”