Morgan Smeeman, a Dutch college student, was at a dinner at the student church of Radboud University when they noticed a poster campaign inviting them to think about what’s really important in their life, and what is not. “The posters were just all over,” Smeeman said. “On the walls, inside the church, outside the church.”
The posters said "memento mori"—Latin for "remember you will die"—and offered students a novel solution to their anxieties about the future: spending time in the student chaplaincy–sponsored "purification grave."
“I thought, OK, this is hella weird,” Smeeman said.
The grave is an open hole in the ground, in the garden behind the student church. If you lay down in the grave, your vision shrinks to a small window of branches and sky. This time of the year, it’s muddy and cold, but still usable—the chaplaincy provides a dry mat and a pillow, if students desire. Plant roots poke through the dirt walls, and plastic tape is set up around it to prevent students from falling in. This grave is for intentional occupants only.
Radboud University, in the town of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, serves 22,000 students. While they do offer nap pods and a standard counseling service, they also have options such as a finals-season "crying room," in addition to the aforementioned grave. In Dutch, it’s called the louteringsgraf. Loutering means an occurrence of some kind that causes a human to become better; in English, it can be translated either as "purification" or "catharsis." “It’s about the purging or relieving of emotional tensions,” Smeeman explained. “I don't think it should really be called a purification grave as much as a catharsis grave. You have to think about your life, and that works in a purifying way to the mind.”
The school's website for the purification grave announces, “If you want to lay in the grave, email us!” It provides a link to a short video about the grave, which intersperses slow panning shots of the grave being dug with text explaining its purpose, over somber choral music. Students from Radboud and the neighboring HAN University of Applied Science may sign up to use the grave for a period ranging from 30 minutes to three hours. They are forbidden to use their phones or bring books into the grave. The purification grave forces you to face what is around you: dirt, branches, sky, and the inevitability of your mortality.
The grave was dug by John Hacking, a chaplain at the student church, in 2009. “People don’t talk about death anymore,” Hacking said. “So, I asked myself, How can I give the old idea of memento mori a new coat?”
Death is still taboo in the Netherlands, where two-thirds of people don’t talk about their own imminent deaths with their families, according to the research agency Kaski. (In the U.S., according to a 2013 Pew survey, it’s an even more unspeakable topic—while 90 percent of people think that end-of-life planning is important, less than a third of people have ever brought their own deaths up with their families.) Hacking believes that death, as a concept, has been banned from discussion due to the disappearance of much mourning ritual in Dutch life—and that students are therefore incapable of dealing with it. There are several Dutch traditions around death that are now rarely practiced, such as covering the windows in a bereaved family’s home with white sheets. This grave, from Hacking’s perspective, is a way to replace older ways of coping with death, and to help students come to terms both with death and with how they might best live.
The grave was initially meant to be a temporary installation. This first phase of its existence ran until 2011, when it was filled up with dirt. Only 39 people participated in the project during that time. This past June, the university brought the grave back from the dead, in response to requests from students. As of this September, according to student church secretary Ilse Hubers, a few people use the grave each week. “Some of them find complete rest,” Hubers said in an interview with a Radboud student newspaper. “Others are triggered by the experience.” According to Hacking, about 30 students have emailed in asking for time in the grave since the beginning of the 2019–2020 school year, and 15 of them have gone through with it. Hacking is expecting two more students this week.
Feona Kane, an exchange student at Radboud, sees the grave as a chance to detach from the fast-moving and dizzying world of modern college life. “There are no distractions. You really do have to just lie there and think about stuff," she said. "You know when people say they have epiphanies when they’ve been on the toilet and forgot to bring their phone, or whatever? It’s like that, but on purpose.” She has not visited the grave yet, but intends to do so once the weather is warmer.
Many visitors use their time in the grave to process the deaths of friends or family. “A few weeks ago,” Hacking said, “I had a boy come and spend two hours in the grave. His mind was going to the death of his friend—afterwards, we talked about it for about an hour. It was hard for him to think about this, about this boy who had ended his life.” Another girl who came to the grave this past week told Hacking that it helped her comprehend the death of her father. “My father died two years ago, and I'm always working, and studying, and not thinking about it,” she told him. “But when I’m in the grave, I have to think about it.”
Paul Wink, a clinical psychologist who writes about the relationship between religiosity and fear of death, agreed that students may be able to use the grave to overcome their fear of death and cope with the deaths of others. He suggested that it could be used as a kind of exposure therapy. “What psychologists have found time and time again is that if you remain in the situation instead of getting out of it, anxiety eventually plateaus and then comes down.”
“When you are in the grave, you are not dead!” Hacking laughed. “Pretending to be dead, wanting to be dead—that’s not the intention of the grave at all. It’s only an invitation to make something of your life.”
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