Laken Cemetery and its underground burial gallery

As part of our occasional series on interesting buildings, monuments and sites this time we visit Laken Cemetery in Brussels. The cemetery is the oldest in the Brussels-Capital region and the last to be situated adjacent to a church. As ever VRT News’ photographer Alexander Dumarey has provided some excellent photographs to illustrate our article. 

A first glance Laken Cemetery looks like any other municipal cemetery, albeit with more than its fair share of monumental graves. Not unsurprising given that many of the great and good were laid to rest there. However, what makes Laken Cemetery truly unique are its 300 meter-long  underground burial gallery. 

Exactly, how long ago the site was first used to bury the dead is not known. However, what is known is that from the 13th century the adjacent parish church used at least some of the site for burials. By the 16 century the parish church in Laken had become a popular place of pilgrimage thanks to the near-by Saint-Anne’s Source after which one of the streets near to the cemetery, the Sint-Annadreef, is named. Water from the source was believed to have medicinal powers. 

The first major extension to the cemetery came in 1831. With the first King of the Belgians Leopold I having moved into to Laken Castle, just a stone’s throw away, the cemetery had grown in popularity. The surface area of the cemetery was doubled to 1.23 hectares. After Queen Louise-Marie was buried in Laken in 1850, the popularity of the cemetery as a final resting place for the great and the good grew significantly. The cemetery was expanded again and its surface area doubled. 

Due to the big growth in population in Laken (and Brussels in general) during the latter half of 19th century the Laken Alderman (and later Mayor) Emile Bockstael came up with an innovative plan to tackle the shortage of space at the cemetery. Having drawn his inspiration from cemeteries in Southern Europe, Emile Bockstael designed a burial chamber in which several people could be buried one on top of another. However, while in Madrid and Genoa the burial chambers are above ground, Emile Bockstael’s plan was to put them underground along subterranean gallery.

The first section of the gallery opened in 1878. It was a great success and soon 5 other Brussels cemeteries opened underground galleries for burials. In the years that followed the gallery was extended several times. By 1935 it was some 300 metres long with room for 4,061 coffins. 

By the 1980’s the gallery was in a poor state of repair due to water infiltration and concrete degradation. Most of it was closed to the general public. In 1997 the oldest part of the gallery was given listed building status. However, it wasn’t until 15 years later in 2012 that a through restoration commenced. 5 years later the restoration work was completed and the gallery was opened to the public in 2017.

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