A guided cemetery tour

Remember the thinkers

Approximately forty thousand people are buried in the ‘luxury’ Zuiderbegraafplaats in Groningen. Among them are several professors, rectors, and lecturers from the RUG. City guide and ‘cemetery expert’ Henk Bakker knows the place like the back of his hand, yet he keeps finding forgotten graves.
By Freek Schueler and Christien Boomsma / Photos by Marre Meijerink / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

Bakker walks through the cemetery at a swift pace. Every once in a while he stops, inspects some stones, wipes sand from a headstone. He cuts a strange and lonely figure.

Two days a week, Glimmen-born Henk Bakker drives the city bus in Groningen. He likes the work, but he’d rather be giving tours in the city and its surrounding countryside. It all started with bus tours of the many art installations in the countryside. Now, more than twenty years later, the tours he gives cover a range of subjects, from city centre architecture to famous Groningen inhabitants’ graves. He gives walking tours, but you can also find him on a boat, a bus, or his bicycle.

Jim Morrison

Bakker is fascinated with the Zuiderbegraafplaats, a cemetery in the south of the city of Groningen. ‘You know Père Lachaise, right? The Parisian cemetery where people like Jim Morrison are buried? The Zuiderbegraafplaats is like the Groningen version of Père Lachaise’, he laughs. For two hundred years, anyone who’s anyone in Groningen has been buried here.

Bakker has brought a list of names of professors. Next to the names and dates, he has scribbled some barely legible notes about the corresponding graves: ‘good headstone’, or ‘nice headstone, slightly damaged’.  Over the past years, he’s gathered quite a bit of information. Some of it he got from the RUG website, and some from Wikipedia.

Every now and then he goes to the archives to try and find information, but it’s not always easy. ‘The RUG website isn’t always correct. Sometimes their dates don’t match with the ones on headstones, and going through the archives manually is time-consuming.’


Bakker talks animatedly about the Zuiderbegraafplaats, which was founded in 1826. ‘Back then, people thought that burying the dead in the city centre would cause epidemics. Don’t forget: this was the time of the Groningen epidemic, which killed approximately ten percent of the population.’

Today, the cemetery is hemmed in by busy motorways. Bakker appraises the cemetery.

The first headstone he sees belongs to Theodorus van Swinderen (1784 – 1851). ‘Van Swinderen was a professor of natural history, at what was then called the Hoogeschool van Groningen, a precursor to the RUG’, says Bakker, pointing out the headstone. Unsurprisingly, his grave has a prominent spot in the cemetery, close to the entrance.

Van Swinderen – nicknamed ‘Doris the child prodigy’ when he was young – wanted to educate the people. He wanted to reform education; he is partially responsible for putting an end to the practice of caning students. He also founded the Natural History Museum – a predecessor of the current University Museum – to show common people the miracles of God’s creation. And he was a hands-on curator. In other words: more often than not, he personally killed the animals for display.

Distinguished name

A little farther ahead, Bakker spots the grave belonging to Henri Daniel Guyot (1753 – 1828). Another distinguished name from the RUG annals.

Guyot was originally a clergyman. But when, in France, he met a priest who had developed a sign language for deaf and mute children, he was so moved that he decided to change his whole life. In his own Groningen home, he started a school for deaf children – the very first in the Netherlands. There, he taught the children sign language, which he had continued to develop. He also taught them to read and write, taught them maths and tried to teach them a trade.

He started with fourteen children in a rented room in the Ebbingestraat, but quickly moved to his own house in the Turftorenstraat. His Institute for the Deaf became such a success that there were branches all over the country, and he and his children were able to move to a building near the Ossenmarkt, to what is now called the Guyot square.

First Jewish professor

Bakker rummages around the cemetery as though he’s looking for treasure. The paper in his hand contains locations: first rank, twelfth row, plot 36, but these are not always easy to find. But then he suddenly has it: the grave belonging to the very first Jewish professor at the RUG, and in the Netherlands:  Izaac van Deen (1804 – 1869).

Another exceptional man. Van Deen was a physician who was interested in how the nervous system works. In order to figure this out, he enjoyed experimenting with live frogs, which he also did in public. Anyone travelling by coach or canal boat in 1835 could just find themselves next to Van Deen, with a large drum full of live frogs for one of his demonstrations.

Van Deen had to work hard to get a job in Groningen. He had applied to several positions at universities and been rejected by Groningen once before. He finally succeeded when the great statesman Johan Rudolph Thorbecke himself wrote him a letter of recommendation.  ‘I am normally not a support of the Jews’, Thorbecke said about Van Deen. ‘But this particular Jew distinguishes himself with honour, both in cleverness and with humility, and has performed important services in these times of cholera.’

Not enough space

Bakker drifts from grave to grave. He points out Bernard Dominics Hubertus Tellegen (1823 – 1885), professor of law, and the giant family vault of agricultural industrial entrepreneur Willem Albert Scholten (1819 – 1892), the founder of the current Scholten group. Scholten had originally wanted forty-five ‘first-class’ graves at the Zuiderbegraafplaats, but had to make do with twenty-seven ‘second-class’ ones, because there was simply not enough space. But the vault and gigantic monument that were ultimately built are still very impressive.

Theologian Petrus Hofstede de Groot (1802 – 1886) is up ahead. He was a liberal thinker: ‘De Groot felt people should live according to the spirit of the bible. Hendrik de Cock, who was much stricter, felt people should obey the letter.’ De Groot was born in the village of Ulrum. Later he became a professor at the RUG and a founder of the influential ‘Groningen theologians’, a socially involved group that was committed to good education and was involved in helping the poor. They often interpreted the bible symbolically.

We have been wandering around the cemetery for an hour. The sun is shining, but the freezing cold is beginning to get a hold on us. But Bakker is not stopping. He knows Isaac Bennie Cohen (1867 – 1954), professor of rural economics, has to be around here somewhere. And Bakker still hasn’t found the final resting place of Johann Friedrich Karl Rudolph Ranke (1849 – 1887), the professor of surgery who in his final months had to be carried into the classroom in order to teach.

And so the search continues.

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