The Mad Gravedigger of Copenhagen

Copenhagen, Denmark - 

It was an off day for our intrepid travelers. I was on my last pair of pants and we'd walked across central Copenhagen in search of The Laundromat Cafe, one of a new breed of fusion cafes that serves coffee, drinks and full meals while you wait for your clothes to finish their spin cycle.

After taking care of chores, we decided to check out the nearby Assistens Kierkegaard, Copenhagen's main burial ground where noteworthies such as Hans Christian Andersen are interred. Being that it was only a few blocks from the laundromat, we figured a bit of gravespotting would make for a nice, brief touristy distraction.

At the entrance was a placard with a map of "known peoples' resting places." We figured out approximately where to find Niels Bohr's family plot and headed off to snap some pictures. That's when our troubles began.

groundskeeper's golf cart sped up behind us on the path; we moved out of the way, but instead of passing us by, the cart slowed to a stop. Being my suspicious self I turned toward the cart, preparing to be chastised for some unnoticed transgression. In the driver's seat sat a grizzled old man with several days' worth of stubble on his face. "Hallo!" he cried, beaming a crooked-toothed grin at us. "Where you from?"

"We're from the US," I said after a moment's hesitation. I was somewhat relieved that we hadn't done anything wrong, but this was not part of the script!

"Ahh, hello Americans!" he said. "Welcome to Denmark, land uff zee Vikings. Do not be afraid! We are friendly people and will not hurt you. I am a working class fellow, but I speak German, French and English. We are a welfare nation! Here you will find many famous dead people, such as H.C. Andersen. You can walk here for free without a ticket! You will go right away to the front office; if the door is locked, you MUST knock on it - do not be afraid! Ask for a map; it is free because we are a welfare nation!"

This tirade left both Anthony and me virtually speechless. After a few moments of awkward silence I managed to stammer "Th-thank you… many influential scientists and artists come from Denmark, and we are here to see them. Thanks for the advice."

I took a closer look at the man and his conveyance. In the passenger's seat of the cart sat a thin, grim-looking man, dressed in the same drab coveralls as our hero. A wagon attached to the cart's rear was full of battered-looking landscaping and digging implements. Both men were dingy and faintly grimy in the way of people who work the land for a living. The grizzled man in the driver's seat was staring directly at me with a shit-eating grin on his face and a vacant look in his eyes.

This was our introduction to the Mad Gravedigger of Copenhagen.

Under orders, we marched back to the front office as the golf cart sped off in the opposite direction. We obtained a map from a severe-looking older woman and spent 20 minutes walking around. Cemetaries in Europe have a very different character from those I've visited in the US; they're beautifully landscaped, more like a city park than a place of mourning. It was a relatively nice day in Copenhagen, and numerous locals strolled along the cemetary paths with baby carriages and pets in tow, contemplating the landscape or chatting with each other.

We found the grave of Niels Bohr, a twelve-foot-high monolith with an owl's nest atop it, complete with a mother owl guarding her eggs. We passed the plots of Danish nobles, sea captains and merchant families. The map listed dozens of Danish noteworthies, most of whom were obscure to us. One name stood out: "Søren Kierkegaard": . His grave was the main reason for our visit.

Strolling up to Kierkegaard's family plot, I noticed that the earth had been freshly tilled - probably in preparation for landscaping. I stood for a few moments reading the obscure inscriptions on the Kierkegaard family's tombstones and musing about the Danish language, but my reverie was soon shattered. "HALLLOOO!!!!" a man's voice shouted from nearby.

Startled, I looked up to see the Mad Gravedigger a few grave sites away. He pumped his arm vigorously, beckoning me to come closer. What's a tourist to do? I walked over to him. I opened my mouth to greet him, but he startled me by jumping up and waving his arms. "HAALLLLOOOO!!! he shouted again," gesturing wildly at Anthony, who was still over by the Kierkegaard plot. Evidently he needed an audience of two; we cooperatively gathered around him.

"Hallo again!" he cried jovially. "How are you enjoying the freedom of walking in the cemetary of our welfare state? I am very well educated though I am working class; I can speak German and French."

"Vraiment?" I replied, deciding to test his claim. "Aimez-vous la culture de la France?" (Do you like French culture?)

"Yes, I speak a little" he said, instantly discrediting his claim. "France is like Denmark because they are answering the Muslim question; like the US also. Together we have all decided the Muslim question and - you know - with the "cartoons and the demonstrations": we are exploring the meaning of free speech. Denmark is a welfare nation. We welcome people of all cultures and together we shall decide the Muslim question. You Americans, your Bush has also decided the question in Iraq. Denmark and US are #1 best friends! Our prime minister drinks coffee with your president, did you know? They sit and have coffee and ride their bicycles together."

"Ahem–" I tried to get a word in edgewise. But he would have none of it.

"Also in Israel with Falestine is the US deciding; many important things have happened there. Your Bush has proved strong leadership. Say! How long are you here?"

"A little less than three weeks," I said, ecstatic an an opportunity to change the subject.

"Splendid!" the gravedigger said. "Wonderful that you spend so long in our country! Most Americans, they come for just one or two days and they only see Copenhagen." We were, in fact, only in Denmark for two days, and didn't plan on leaving Copenhagen - but I wasn't about to confess to it just then! I resolved to fib my way through the remainder of the conversation.

"If you are here for so long, it is essential that you visit many places. I can help you. Where is your little map?"

"Wha?" I said, taken aback.

"All Americans have a little map of Denmark with them, and also a book! It is essential! Show me your little map." Inexplicably, he turned to Anthony and said in German "Frag ihn wo der kleine Karte ist." (Ask him where the little map is.)

Naturally, our copy of Lonely Planet was in my backpack, and it does in fact have a two-page color map of Denmark inside the front cover. Sheepishly, I pulled out the book and opened it to the map page.

"Excellent!" he said, beaming with joy. "Now I will tell you, and you must write, all of the places you shall visit."

He began rattling off the names of cities and towns as fast I as I could scribble them on the margins of the cemetary map. He suggested a few destinations on the Swedish coast, and also the city of Helsingør. "Ahh, in Sweden," I said knowingly, having seen a city of that name as we passed through in the train. He instantly became livid.

"No, absolutely not!" he snapped. "Helsingborg is Sweden; Helsingør is Denmark; entirely different! Helsingborg is not essential at all! Only Helsingør is essential!" Chagrined, I crossed out what I'd written. The diatribe continued.

We covered the small island of Zealand ("Roskilde is essential! Old king city, much like Lund.") and numerous destinations on Jutland, the largest of Denmark's islands. Every destination was "essential" or "required" or "very important cultural value" because it contained a museum, castle, sea port or "young hostel."

After a few minutes of laborious note-taking, I was glad to see another group of tourists traipse up to Kierkegaard's grave.

"HALLLOOO!" the gravedigger trumpeted, positively orgasmic at having so many tourists to enthrall. "Welcome to Denmark! You may walk here and see our graves for free, because this is not Falestine, you know!"

I tuned him out as he rattled through his welfare-country spiel. The newcomers were two men and a women, definitely American, college-aged, with the streetwise look of fellow Lonely Planet travellers. They listened patiently to the man's monologue, but with every run-on sentence their faces became more crestfallen as it dawned on them just how trapped they were.

"And so, together, your president drinks coffee with my prime minister," the gravedigger concluded. "Hey, where in America you from?"

"Los Angeles," one of the men replied. "Boston," the girl said. "Seattle," the second man said.

"Ah, Seattle – beautiful Canada!" our gravedigger friend gushed. "When I have traveled in Canada I have seen that it is like Denmark a welfare country!" He began prattling on about Canada, and nobody dared to correct him.

After a few minutes the other tourists managed to escape, and Anthony and I thought we saw a chance to make our break as well. But just as I started to put away my little map, the gravedigger let loose with a now-familiar "HALLLOOO!" that echoed through the cemetary. He gesticulated wildly at an older gentleman a few plots down, speaking rapid-fire Danish. The old man came over.

"This fellow is my #1 landscape contractor," the gravedigger explained. "We are best of friends! We speak much about the Muslim question. Your Bush has done much to answer the question in Iraq and Falestine and he is a very excellent leader."

I grimaced and made a "so-so" hand signal at the contractor, trying to discreetly convey my political views. He winked at me and we all stood listening to the gravedigger elaborate about the Muslim question for several more minutes. Eventually (thankfully!) the subject turned once again to tourism. The contractor was pressed to give us his list of essential Danish cities to visit, and more prattling ensued.

Finally the gravedigger got around to Copenhagen. He listed several essential museums. On the subject of restaurants he could only offer "You must eat at La Glace, it is my favorite - how you say - konditori? For thirty years I have eaten there; I enjoy fairy cake and layer cake and many goods!" He slapped his belly, then squinted at me and pointed at my midriff. "You young fellow, could eat five pieces!" He cackled gleefully and began listing more essential destinations. My hand was getting tired and I couldn't find any more free space in the margins, so I simply pretended to write notes.

Eventually the landscape contractor excused himself to get some work done, and I pretended to suddenly notice the time. Anthony and I bid adieu, extricated ourselves from the gravedigger's presence, and slinked toward the cemetary gates. At every intersection we looked furtively in all directions, anxious to avoid bumping into him again. A few short minutes later, we were bound for the no-longer-threatening inner city streets of Copenhagen. Like denizens of big cities everywhere, the people of Copenhagen mind their own business when they walk down the street.

If you ever visit Denmark, I can recommend a great many sights to see. If you enjoy the works of H.C. Andersen, the science of Niels Bohr, or the philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard, I can tell you where they're buried. But I strongly advise that you go there early in the morning, before the groundskeepers start their shift. Dress in European-looking clothes and speak only French while you are there. If you do all of these things, then perhaps you can escape without suffering through a visit from the Mad Gravedigger of Copenhagen.