The Tot Zover (Dutch Funeral Museum) in Amsterdam

February 13, 2017 | Filed Under Death Work | No Comments

While searching the internet for something else entirely, I found the site for Tot Zover (the Dutch Funeral Museum) in Amsterdam. As I was actually in Amsterdam at the time, I took advantage of this information, and took myself to the museum the next day. It’s convenient to Tram Line 9, which leaves from Centraal Station, and stops at Kruislaan.

Unsurprisingly, the museum building is next to a cemetery. De Nieuwe Ooster was established in 1894, and is a lovely place. As it was pouring rain, I did not spend much time walking the grounds, and I hope to return when the weather is more cooperative.

When you enter the building doors, you find yourself in the Roosenburgh Cafe, which is a wonderful place to enjoy a bit of refreshment after perusing the exhibits, and is filled with neighborhood regulars, which made me happy to see.

The cafe is also where you purchase your museum tickets, and it has a coat rack and free lockers so you can walk around unencumbered. The cashier was very helpful, and assisted me in English when my attempt to purchase a ticket while speaking Dutch was not all it could have been. (I’ve never studied it formally, and rely heavily on my Berlitz phrase book. Most people in Amsterdam speak English better than many of us in the US, but I feel it’s important to make the effort. I’ve been told I say “dank u wel” quite well, so at least I am able to say “thank you” properly.)

The rotating exhibit was being changed, so I took the information card for the permanent exhibit (in English, so I would not spend more time wrestling Google Translate than looking at things, yay!), and stepped into the hall. The permanent exhibit is a display of seven wooden caskets, filled with the funeral items of a particular tradition, and holding a monitor which shows a video of the customs for that tradition, from preparing the body to the funeral ritual itself. The information is well-organized and clearly presented, and gave me several ideas for end-of-life planning and celebrations.

The black-and-white vintage footage of a Jewish funeral (the first depicted) with its quiet solemnity and highly formal ritual, contrasts sharply with the modern personal funeral (the last in the exhibit), with its casual air and the deceased himself hosting the event via pre-recorded video. In between are depictions of Roman Catholic, Muslim, and other cultures. (Memory fails, and I thought I had written them down, but apparently I did not.) From a deep tradition to a new tradition, the exhibit did a good job of comparing and contrasting customs around the world.

Of particular note to me is that the Suriname Creole sing and drink red wine while preparing the body, and sing and dance the body out to the hearse. They also have a small brass band as part of the funeral procession. It’s a joyful time in spite of the loss, and reminded me of the jazz funerals in New Orleans.

The hallway back to the cafe contains a selection of photographs from the recent temporary exhibit on Death Portraiture. Featuring photos of its subjects both prior to and after their deaths, in domestic settings and among their loved ones, the exhibit is intensely moving. The photos themselves are beautiful to view, and when you realize that the recipient of the love and affection bestowed is actually deceased, the photos take on an entirely new depth and feeling.

There’s also a display case of miniature hearses, from horse-drawn funeral carriages to current vehicles. The cultural shift over the span of years from the casket being fully visible, to barely visible, and back again was interesting to see.

I made some notes while I viewed everything, and then added to them as I fortified myself with a cup of hot tea before heading out into the day to continue my adventures. I definitely recommend a visit to Tot Zover as a way of gaining appreciation for the variety of memorial traditions and the commonality of our need to acknowledge a loved one and their loss from our lives.

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