VUB research explores reuse of ancient burial mounds in nature reserves

VUB research explores reuse of ancient burial mounds in nature reserves

Opportunities for richer burial rituals and reforestation

For some years, an amendment to the decree on cemeteries and funeral services has made it possible to establish natural cemeteries in Flanders. The decree is in line with expectations from society and examples in neighbouring countries. Nandy Dolman of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel investigated whether such new natural burial grounds can also be linked to (pre-)historical funerary traditions. An article about her research will appear on 28 May in the book Memento Mori II: The Cemetery in Conversation.

Dolman: “There are indeed possibilities to do this and even link it to reforestation. The existential human need to be ritually reconnected with nature after death could be fulfilled in this way even more richly.”

Flanders has many burial mounds, which are old burial places. Archaeologist Dolman, a member of the VUB research group HARP, made an inventory of the burial mounds in Flanders’ forest and nature areas. Of the almost 1,500 known sites from the prehistoric to the Roman period, 10% were located in forest and nature areas managed by the Agency for Nature and Forests. She also conducted appreciative and participatory research and examined whether these burial mounds could be reactivated as “archaeological natural burial grounds”. For this, Dolman gauged people’s expectations of a natural burial ground and investigated the opportunities or threats for the preservation and accessibility of archaeological sites in the event of reuse. 

In consultation with her supervisor, Prof Marc De Bie, Dolman discovered that there are indeed possibilities for making the surroundings of prehistoric burial grounds accessible as modern natural cemeteries. There are, however, a number of conditions attached. For example, the decree only allows cremation remains to be left behind and, in the case of burial, they must be contained in a biodegradable urn. Both archaeology and nature management are concerned with ensuring that heritage and natural values are not affected. Interventions in vulnerable nature reserves are therefore out of the question and, from a heritage point of view, the only sites that are eligible are those where excavations have already taken place and the original heritage can no longer be threatened. Where possible, new forestation or nature development can also take place here. In practical terms, there also needs to be local support for a natural cemetery, and the municipalities involved should take the initiative. Finally, the new natural burial grounds should be managed in a smart way with appropriate measures to enhance both the natural and heritage values in the long term.

Win-win situations possible

“The research shows that it is a nuanced story, where it is always a question of finding a balance between opening up and protection. But win-win situations are possible,” Dolman says. “Especially in the west of Flanders, there are environments with burial mounds that seem suitable for reforestation, which is currently a major ambition of the Flemish government. And if all conditions can be met, then it does indeed seem possible to reconnect with the traditions and communities of thousands of years ago.”


Marc de Bie

0473 88 19 13


Nandy Dolman

0498 61 25 40

Note for the press

To kick off European Cemetery Week on Friday 28 May, publisher ASP and INTRO Culture and Media are pleased to invite you to the digital book launch of Memento Mori II: The Cemetery in ​ Conversation. Experts and project leaders Tamara Ingels and Lieve Destoop will talk to heritage professional Tom Dorau about the cemetery of today and tomorrow. You are most welcome.

PROGRAMME 19.30-20.30

Welcome by Mathias De Clercq, mayor of Ghent

Introduction by Isabelle Heyndrickx, Ghent city councillor for civil affairs and protocol

Panel discussion between Tamara Ingels, Lieve Destoop and various authors

Questions from the audience

Host and moderator: Tom Dorau


Registration in advance is necessary. This can be done here until Friday 28 May.


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