Rise of the Colourful Dead

 “Damn it feels good to be a gangsta” is the rap music that accompanies the late arrivals while they slowly drag themselves into the room. People are spread out across the room, filling the chairs and shading the walls. A tight-knit group is sitting front row. All are facing the guest of honour, the man in the colourful centrepiece. The man in the coffin.

Photo by Lian Roovers

Artistic and personalized coffins, such as this one, are not rare in contemporary funerals anymore. Likewise, Ave Maria has lost its status as the funeral song. Over the last couple of decades people have become more creative with planning their own or their loved ones’ last rites, making or compiling art pieces from the purest emotions.

The Flourish

In funeral services the three conventional art forms have always been represented, namely the visual arts, music and literature. However, lately they seem to be flourishing. The art surrounding funerals is reaching new, creative heights.

Pauline Barendse, maker of memory keepers, supports this observation. “When I started making memory keepers 10 years ago, the jewellery was very unimaginative. Luckily there has been a change over the last couple of years.”

It seems that people have become more inventive with and open about their ideas. In the past our burials and everything surrounding it were a lot more conservative. It is the elderly generation that still upholds the traditional black funeral. And as long as it is all happening in the dark, there might be the possibility to just ignore it and quickly move on.

As Armien Visser, maker of coffin cloths, explains “With the decline of the Christian Faith, many of the rituals of saying goodbye to our deceased disappeared. Some sort of taboo around talking about death arose and the funeral became a bare and unsatisfactory matter.”

Now, this taboo is slowly crumbling. For Pauline personally the stranger is the better. “Almost no wish is too strange for me. I actually embrace those strange wishes.”

A change in the Dutch legislation has been one of the main factors making this possible. More possibilities arose to give the deceased a personal burial, for example concerning the requirements and limitations of the coffin.

Eternal Art

With this rise of possibilities a rise of demand for creative output has taken place as well. Both Pauline and Armien are part of the artist group Arte Eterna. They consist of nine artists who work on personalized and modern funeral products, ranging from memory keepers to mosaic memorial stones. They all have their own area of specialization and their own different backgrounds.

Margriet Grondman, a ceramist and therapist, shares her personal motivation. “When my son died 20 years ago, I started to experience the value and healing power of working artistically.” Recently Margriet decided to combine her affiliation for art and therapy into making memorial monuments together with the client. In this process the emphasis lies on the client instead of on the artist herself. “I still make my own art, but with memorial monuments the importance is directed towards the other person.”

The appeal of the funeral branch for Jeanine Gerlofsma, mosaic artist, is in the personal aspect. Mosaics made for memorial stones are much more personalized than mosaics made for a primary school, for example. “The people can decide for themselves how they want the memorial stone to be made: they can come over to watch the process and they can help by putting in some pieces. It has more value to them, and consequently also to me.” It is the pain and sadness of her clients that stimulate her to make something special.

Even though the branch is developing rapidly, the taboo surrounding death still has not disappeared completely. Bringing up the topic of death will still cause many bystanders to shrink. What do the artists think of this negative sphere surrounding death?

Pauline explains that “you can’t go around death because it belongs to life.” In Mexico they understand this. Yearly they celebrate the death on El Dia de Los Muertos, or The Day of the Death. Among other things this is one of Pauline’s inspirations. To her, death is not an overwhelmingly sad thing, but it is actually that what adds meaning and purpose to jewellery making. “The contradiction for me is the creation of unnecessary luxury.”

The Grieving Process

One motivation that is probably common to all working in this field is to help the bereaved move forward in their grieving process. The creation of the perfect goodbye will help the family and friends of the deceased to leave with a satisfactory feeling.

Ceramist and professional therapist, Margriet, says that she sees her job “more as a small part of the guidance in the grieving process, with a small object as a touchable result.”

In the case of Armien, the coffin and body cloths that she creates often give a protective impression to the family members and friends. “The cloth adds a protective layer and can help with a better processing of their sorrows.”

Obviously, a funeral will always be a sad occasion. But it is the beauty of the arts surrounding it that can give people comfort and support in their processing. Isn’t embracing death like these artists do more healthy and pleasant to undergo than shunning it all?

“With or without you” from U2 is audible in the background when people slowly walk passed the colourful coffin. Some give it a little knock on the top; some look at it and make a cross in front of their chest; and others simply look at it, maybe releasing a few last words in their mind. Everyone leaves the room ready to grieve in their own personal ways, just like the man in the coffin had his own personal goodbye.


Jeanine Gerlofsmamakes memorial stones of mosaic. Already 15 years in the business, she has her own studio in ‘s Hertogenbosch. She works together with her clients in close cooperation to make the most personal and unique pieces. Margriet Grondman is a ceramist and a visual therapist. She brings these two professions together by making memorial monuments of ceramics. She believes that symbols and shapes are an important aspect of the grieving process. Armien Visser makes cloths for coffins and corpses. She wants to create a synthesis of images and symbolism. Her travels around the world have given different impulses and input to the shaping of her work. Pauline Barendse makes memory keepers. These can be jewellery or any small objects, containing ashes, photos or more. She wants to use precious materials with new techniques and new materials with old techniques.

For more information on the Arte Eterna artists, visit www.arteeterna.com.

– K.J. Evers

Feature in its original lay-out


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