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Assistens Cemetery (Danish: Assistens Kirkegård) in Copenhagen, Denmark, is the burial site of a large number of Danish notables as well as an important greenspace in the Nørrebro district. Inaugurated in 1760, it was originally a burial site for the poor laid out to relieve the crowded graveyards inside the walled city, but during the Golden Age in the first half of the 19th century it became fashionable and many leading figures of the epoch, such as Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, and Christen Købke are all buried here.
Late in the 19th century, as Assistens Cemetery had itself become crowded, a number of new cemeteries were established around Copenhagen, including Vestre Cemetery, but up through the 20th century it has continued to attract notables. Among the latter are the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr and a number of American jazz musicians who settled in Copenhagen during the 1950s and 1960s, including Ben Webster and Kenny Drew.
An assistenskirkegård (meaning "assistance cemetery") is originally a generic term in Danish, used to refer to cemeteries which were laid out to assist existing burial sites, usually those located in urban settings in connection with churches, and therefore a number of cemeteries by the same name are found around Denmark.
In Medieval times intramural interment was the rule although outdoor graveyards gradually became more common. In 1666 the Naval Holmens Cemetery was moved from its original location at Church of Holmen to a site outside the Eastern City Gate as the first burial facility to be located outside the city.
An outbreak of plague in 1711 which killed an estimated 23,000 citizens put the existing burial sites under so much pressure that up to five coffins were sometimes buried on top of each other. This led to the establishment of five new cemeteries on the periphery of the city, but just inside the city walls, while the military Garnisons Cemetery was relocated to a site next to that of Holmens Cemetery.
In the 1750s the situation deteriorated even further and in a letter of 2 May 1757 the City Council proposed to the Chancellery that a large new cemetery be built for the city's parishes outside the city walls. After some negotiations it was decided to place it outside the Northern City Gate and on 26 May 1757 the new facility was founded by Royal charter. The new cemetery was inaugurated on 6 November 1760. It was enclosed by a wall built by Philip de Lange.
Originally the cemetery was intended as a burial ground for paupers. In 1785 an affluent citizen, astronomic writer and First Secretary of the War Chancellery Johan Samuel Augustin, made specific requests to be interred at the cemetery, in his codicil stating that "Mein Begräbnis soll auf dem Armen-Kirchhofe vor dem Norderthor seyn, wesfalls ich sehon mit Mr. Simon, der dort Gräber ist, gesprochen habe". He was soon followed by other leading figures from the elite and the cemetery soon developed into the most fashionable burial ground of the city.
Around that time, excursions to the cemetery with picnic baskets and tea became a popular activity among common citizens of Copenhagen. In his account of a visit to Copenhagen in 1827, the Swedish poet Karl August Nicander fondly remembers Assistens Cemetery:
In order to enjoy another softer, quieter celebration, I walked out one evening through Nørre Port (the North Gate) to the so-called Assistens Cemetery. It is certainly one of the most beautiful graveyards in Europe. Leafy trees, dark paths, bright open flowery expanses, temples shaded by poplars, marble tombs overhung by weeping willows, and urns or crosses wrapped in swathes of roses, fragrance and bird song, all transform this place of death into a little paradise.
The excursions sometimes evolved into rowdy gatherings and legislation was passed to prevent this. A commission established in 1805 issued instructions which prohibited the consumption of food or drink as well as music or any other kind of cheerful behaviour in the cemetery. The gravediggers, who lived on the premises, were to enforce these restrictions but they seem to have taken their duties lightly. Legislation from 1813 prohibited them to sell alcohol to visitors to the cemetery. Despite all these efforts, the desired peace and quiet was a long time in coming. For particularly grand funerals, crowds of spectators would gather, and people would festoon the cemetery walls to get a better view. To reduce numbers of visitors, there was talk of introducing admission fees, but this was never carried out.
The cemetery is still serving its original purpose as a burial ground but is also a popular tourist attraction, as well as the largest and most important greenspace in the inner part of the Nørrebro district.
It is divided into sections. The oldest part is Section A and features the graves of Søren Kierkegaard and the painter Christen Købke among others. Section D is dedicated to religious minorities, containing Roman Catholic and Reformed graves as well as Russian graves. Section E is the section which originally served under Church of Our Lady.
In 2003 an old horse stable in a corner of Assistens Cemetery was converted into a small museum dedicated to writer and artist Herman Stilling, a native to the Nørrebro area and mainly known for painting trolls. Apart from the permanent exhibition, the museum also contains an exhibition space for special exhibitions, a picture workshop for children and young people, and a café.
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