Methodology Spotlight

Where are the graves of your Dutch ancestors?

Every time I make a heritage trip with foreign clients, one of their questions is: “Can we visit the graves of our Dutch ancestors?” My answer is in many occasions painful. Old graves often no longer exist.

Jewish cemetery in Tilburg (photo credits: John Boeren, Tilburg)

Public and private graves

According to Dutch law two types of graves exist: public graves and private graves. In case of a public grave, next of kin have no rights. The cemetery decides where the grave is located, what it looks like and who is buried in it. So there may be several people in such a grave who had no connection with each other. A public grave is in any case maintained for ten years, but this term can also be fifteen or twenty years depending on local regulations. Once this period ends, the grave will be cleared. Not every cemetery has public graves.

It is different with private graves. In that case, a relative pays for the right to use a grave (burial rights, grafrechten). The owner of these rights decides who will be buried in the grave and what it looks like. He or she is also responsible for maintenance. Burial rights exist for at least ten years, but agreements can be made about longer terms. Once the term ends, relatives decide whether to keep the grave for a new period. If they give up on their rights, the grave will be cleared. The cemetery staff will do its utmost best to trace a next of kin, but if they fail in finding one they will clear the grave.

Because of this system, many older graves no longer exist. Simply because relatives stopped paying for the burial rights. Or there were no relatives left.

Visitors at Margraten War Cemetery (photo credits: Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, Amersfoort, document 120723_7093)

Exceptions

A single cemetery also has the option of perpetual burial rights. In that case, graves remain ‘for eternity’. This is a relative term, because there can always be urgent circumstances why the grave must be cleared after a long time.

If your ancestors were Jewish, you have a higher chance that their graves still exist. According to the Jewish tradition, graves are often for eternity. However, it may be that they are difficult to find due to overdue maintenance. Nature might have taken over the place.

There are about a hundred war cemeteries in the Netherlands. The biggest is the German War Cemetery in Ysselsteyn with more than 31,000 graves. A very well-know war cemetery is the one in Margraten, with the graves of more than 8,000 US soldiers. It is very unusual that these graves are cleared. One possibility may be that the soldier’s remains are repatriated.

Not every person was buried in a graveyard or cemetery. Some families owned graves in a church. In some churches the old graves (or grave stones) are still present and visible. Unfortunately there are also churches where large-scale renovations destroyed the old floors, including the tombstones.

Tip

Do you want to know if the graves of your Dutch ancestors still exist? We recommend you to take a look at the following webistes, that have indexes and images of graves.

These are just a few examples. It is not an exhaustive list.

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