It’s known as Belgium’s Père Lachaise. Filled with magnificent tombs and extraordinary statues, including an original copy of Rodin’s The Thinker, there is a striking similarity of style and elegance. There, though, the comparison between Paris’ most famous cemetery and Laeken cemetery ends. Père Lachaise has seen perhaps a million burials, Laeken has around 10,000 graves. Père Lachaise is 440,000m², Laeken 6,200m².
Laeken cemetery is centuries old and, like Père Lachaise, is the final resting place of many of the nation’s most famous sons and daughters, with memorials celebrating those that shaped the newly formed nation of Belgium in the 19th century. The cemetery may not house anywhere close to the number of famous people that Père Lachaise can boast, but they do rub shoulders with royalty.
The cemetery is overshadowed by the Church of Our Lady of Laeken. This massive building has been a church since the 13th century, but what you see today was mostly built in the late 19th century in the neo-gothic style and with one purpose in mind: to be the final resting place of the Belgian royal family. The Royal Crypt of Belgium lays silently beneath the church.
Here lies the first Queen of Belgium, Louise-Marie d’Orleans, her husband Leopold I, and several other royals. Including the most notorious Belgian of all, Leopold II, King of the Belgians from 1865 to 1909. He was also the owner and absolute ruler of the Congo Free State from 1885 to 1908, and was responsible for both the reign of terror that country was subjected to, and the deaths of millions of Congolese.
The church was consecrated in 1872, but it wasn’t finished until 1909, which probably means some of the stolen wealth of the Congo was used to construct it. Perhaps that is one reason the Royal crypt is rarely open to non-royal visitors. The cemetery next door does welcome visitors and is a strangely pleasant place to stroll around considering it’s full of dead people.
The graves are set amidst mature trees and bushes. There’s a nice chapel that was part of the original church and, while it seems small, I found myself wandering around this fascinating place for a couple of hours. I doubt very few, if any, of the luminaries buried here are well known in Belgium today, and most are unheard of outside the country.
Still, it’s home to three famous architects Balat, Suys and Poelaert, who was responsible for Our Lady of Laeken and also the Palace of Justice – a magnificent building that has been allowed to fall into a disgraceful state of disrepair and is now the biggest white elephant in Brussels. Also interred here is the famed opera singer, María de la Felicidad García, known as La Malibran.
Married to violinist Charles de Bériot, also buried here, La Malibran was one of the most famous opera singers of her era. Her talent was discovered as a child and she performed at the age of six in Naples, before having a stellar career in Europe and North America. She died in Manchester, England, after falling from a horse at the early age of 28 years, only a few months after marrying Bériot.
Her body was returned to Laeken and her fame lives on in Venice’s Teatro Malibran. Elsewhere in the cemetery lies, Marie Popelin, whose grave carries an inscription from the Belgian League for Women’s Rights. She was the first woman to attain a law diploma in Belgium, but entrenched patriarchy meant she was never allowed to work as a lawyer.
In one corner of the cemetery is the famed bronze of Rodin’s The Thinker, bought in 1927 by the art collector Josef Dillen to use for his own memorial. That’s not to say Brussels doesn’t have a Rodin connection. He lived here from 1871 to 1877, working for sculptor Albert Carrier-Belleuse. His work is still seen at the Brussels Stock Exchange, La Bourse.
Rodin had a creative period in Brussels, finishing one of his most famous works, The Age of Bronze, here. A young Belgian soldier, Auguste Ney, was the model and it was first exhibited in Brussels before causing a scandal in Paris. Near The Thinker is the beautiful tomb of another soldier, from another war. Max Pelgrims died on August 19, 1914, shortly after the First World War erupted.
All cemeteries have horror stories, and Laeken is no different. Only here the true horror is the horrifyingly bad management of Laeken’s crypt. It was discovered the wooden coffins had disintegrated, the bodies had liquefied inside. In response, metal coffins were made compulsory. Except some were completely airtight, others had defective ‘burper’ valves. Gases from decomposing bodies built up so much pressure that coffins exploded. That’s right, exploding corpses. Sleep tight children.