FIGUREHEADS continue to hold symbolic power even after death in The Burial of the Last Queen of Denmark. A ritualised national event is retold as a future endpoint. The work is a water-driven mechanical theatre and architectural model housed in a bog oak sarcophagus. In it is staged the funeral procession for the last queen of Denmark.

At their death Denmark’s monarchs have for centuries passed through Roskilde’s cathedral square before being laid to rest in the city’s cathedral. Here, the future event is projected as an assemblage of long-established urban rituals, in which the queen’s body is dismembered and enshrined in building-sized reliquaries. The work thereby mechanises the ceremonies that have traditionally transformed Roskilde’s cathedral square into a grand departure gate and set piece in the construction of Denmark’s national identity.

“We see a connection between the funeral processions of Denmark’s kings and queens through Roskilde before being buried in the city’s cathedral and earlier ritual performances associated with holy relics. The skull of Saint Lucius I was trafficked up from Rome to repel the demons of Isefjord, which it reportedly did with some success, before reaching Roskilde to triumphal acclaim. On arrival, it was built into the facade of the newly built cathedral. Both relics and royal remains have to arrive in just the right way. We’re interested in how the careful staging of these arrivals shapes identities and gives meanings that extend far beyond the bodies of saints, kings and queens.”


“Shortly after her death the Last Queen of Denmark stops being a person and becomes something else. No longer housing a living individual, her body is transformed into a potent symbol of her status as the figurehead of the society over which she once ruled. We keep her body on perpetual display as a guiding principle for the ordering of society. She will never leave us. Nothing will ever change. The ritual shows an affinity with the burial rites of the Guayaki Indians of the Paraguayan jungle. When a member of the tribe dies they are roasted over a gentle fire and eaten up by the bereaved. Leaving the body to decay in the ground is considered the height of barbarity and heartlessness. A person’s place is within the tribe. How could you leave someone to the fierce and uncontrolled jungle? No, the stomachs of your kith and kin are the best resting places you could wish for.”

“[…] shaped reliquaries of the body parts signify specifically through the implied fragmentation of the body, in this way insisting upon a larger whole […] . These body parts forcefully insist upon their fragmentation in order to evoke a whole beyond the individual.”


The origin of the 15th century arm-shaped reliquary of painted oak is unknown. The reliquary bears the coat of arms of the now long extinct Scanian noble house of Ulfstand, but has been in the possession of the Royal Kunstkammer since the 17th century. An appended piece of parchment claims that it contains an arm of one of the 10,000 knights who suffered a martyr’s death in 311. It has also been said to hold a shoulder blade of Canute the Holy. Inside it is a human femur bone. The Roman Catholic Church maintains that the essence of its saints lingers in their bodily remains and personal possessions.

The relics are sacred objects that link religious communities with the divine during special processions and ceremonies. Reliquaries are often shaped like body parts, though not always the ones they house. The custom is thought to be as old as the Romans’ brutal killings and dismemberments of the early Christians in the first centuries AD, but fetish worship, ancestor cults and other similar practices are known all over the globe.