The forest reimagined
With no place else to go during lockdown, many readers will head out into the forest over the coming days. Once there, the bare branches and stark vegetation reveal a new landscape, allowing Luxembourg’s usually hidden forest cemeteries to come to the fore.
They are an apt memento for human vulnerability during the pandemic.
A burial plot in the forest offers an ecological and equitable alternative for people who do not want a conventional funeral. Forest cemeteries, quite literally, are a great leveller of hierarchies.
There is no room for pompous tombstones or mausoleums and you do not know if the tree you get assigned will grow any mightier than your neighbour’s. A forest just does not look like the manufactured and ostentatious affair that a conventional cemetery can be.
While there is no requirement for a stele or headstone in a forest cemetery, there is a growing trend to erect memorial sculpture. The Olm Beschkierfecht, in the commune of Kehlen, is one of the first forests flaunting one. I decided to catch up with the maker of L’Arbre du Repos (The Tree of Rest), an artist who goes by the name of Elsa.
Elsa's work is an obvious choice for a forest sculpture, marrying as it does art and nature. Many of her sculptures depict vegetation or floral motifs and she often sculpts them in situ, not in an atelier.
The artist is the first to confess that she was not immediately won over by the project. ‘‘I have to admit that at first, I wasn’t tempted by the idea of working for a cemetery, funerary art not being my vocation!,” she said.
“But the concept of the forest cemetery, in the heart of nature, with the desire to bring everyone together, without distinction of religion, class, social or political opinion succeeded in convincing me.’’
Once that hurdle was taken, the idea for the piece developed quickly. ‘‘Being in the heart of a forest’’, Elsa said, ‘’it seemed obvious to me to carve a tree ... When we talk about death, we often say ‘return to the earth’ or ‘ascend to heaven’... What could be better than a tree to illustrate this?Their roots in the ground and their branches reaching, like arms, towards the sky, towards the light. Their leaves, like our souls, fly away, each one different but from the same family, connecting heaven and earth.’’
“The base for L’Arbre du Repos, representing the roots, is carved in sandstone - the stone emblematic of Luxembourg. The upper part, which represents the branches of the tree, is carved from two blocks of Herbeumont slate, located in the Belgian Ardennes - the last slate quarry still in operation in Benelux.’’ There is a plaque on each branch of the sculpture, like a leaf, with the details of the deceased.
Death is a topic most people avoid, and Elsa saw the project as a risk. “From the very beginning of the discussion about the project, I proposed to create the sculpture in the heart of the village in order to involve the population….Breaking down barriers and prejudices,” she said. This resulted in workshops being run at schools, where children made art works from scraps of slate. The forest memorial was also exhibited at the Kuki Festival in Kehlen.
Seeking an alternative...
Luxembourg’s very first forest cemetery, the ‘Rieder Bëschkierfecht’ began as a pilot project in the town of Betzdorf in 2010. The success of the project led to the creation of the Cessange Forest Cemetery in 2014 in the city. Since then the number of forest cemeteries has grown to 14, with a further 10 projects in the pipeline.
The appeal of forest cemeteries lies not only in their location, but also in their maintenance; for the Service Forêts (Forest Department) caters to their upkeep, reducing the costs normally deriving from maintaining a burial plot. Cremation is a prerequisite for burial in a forest cemetery. Other than that, it is a matter of just applying with the municipality of residence to assign a tree.
The trees in these forests are generally beech or oak, which can live hundreds of years. Urns and casks cannot be interned, but the ashes of the deceased can often be laid at the base of the tree or scattered in a designated area of the forest. Some forests permit civil services on site, and have built woodland pavilions to that purpose.
After the ceremony a plaque or number is attached to the tree so that the departed can be identified. On occasion, a religious symbol can be added. In general, each tree records a maximum of 10 cremations.
Planning a plot? - Costs and regulations can vary from commune to commune. You will find more details on this website.
Elsa regularly exhibits and creates sculptures in Luxembourg. Her work can be found at the Cercle Munster in the Grund, the Haut-Martelange slate museum and at the Laangwiss Shopping Centre, Junglinster.