A tour of Prague’s most important cemeteries
At this time of year, Prague’s cemeteries are carpeted with red and yellow leaves, and in this chilly weather, you are quite unlikely to bump into that many other visitors. Prague’s thirty-or-so city maintained cemeteries offer a step back from the hustle and bustle and traffic jams of the metropolis - and provide the visitor with a glimpse into the Czech capital’s history as well.
“So here we are in the Olsany Cemetery, which is the oldest burial ground in Prague outside of the old city walls. It’s also the biggest burial ground in all of the Czech Republic. If I’m not mistaken, I think around 1.5 million people are buried here.”
The graveyard, located on 46 hectares in the Prague 3 area, has a rather colourful history.
“This cemetery was founded when a plague epidemic struck Prague at the end of the 17th century. It was too dangerous to bury plague victims in the middle of the city, beside their local church, as was custom. The king ordered Prague councillors to buy a patch of land outside the city walls. So they bought this ground here in Olsany, which was at the time outside of Prague, and they started to bury plague victims out here. And as time went on and Prague grew bigger, it was no longer just plague victims who were buried out here, but normal inhabitants of the new town as well.”
Olsany Cemetery is so big that it is difficult to find your way around. To combat this, and attract more people into the cemetery, Father Szabo came up with the idea for a series of signs, offering visitors something of a guided tour:
“There is still one space free in this tomb, but I think burying people in Slavin is a closed chapter now. Because the idea of burying dead people in the place that they worked, or where they lived or near their family, is the one that predominates in society today. It was like that with the Nobel-prize winning poet Jaroslav Seifert; his grave is in Kralupy, just north of Prague, where his parents are buried.”
Mr. Potocek shows me inside the pantheon. It is splendid, with a mosaic ceiling and marble floor. But how does it compare to, say, its namesake in Paris?
“Obviously, you can’t compare Slavin with the Pantheon in Paris or the Wallhalle in Bavaria. They are much bigger in scale and were established for other reasons. There is one particular difference which I think exists between Slavin and them. In Paris, there are all sorts of people buried in the Pantheon, and in Germany, it is predominantly great soldiers who are buried in the Wallhalle. But here, it’s painters, writers, artists. So that’s the difference between our Slavin and these big grand pantheons which you find elsewhere.”
I asked him why he liked to visit cemeteries where he had no relatives buried:
“Each cemetery has its own particular charm. In almost every one you will find some sort of work of art. Graveyards are like open-air galleries in a way. People also call the Jewish cemeteries here in Prague gardens. And they really are like gardens in certain respects. They are very often like public parks too. In Prague we don’t have that many big parks, and cemeteries like the one on Olsanske namesti and as well the one we are in now – the New Jewish Cemetery – can be described as public parks. And when you walk around a cemetery, it is like reading a book you have never read before. You learn a lot of things. A cemetery is like an encyclopaedia or dictionary.”
“So here we can see on Franz Kafka’s grave – because not only Jewish people visit this place – that people have left flowers. Some have even left fake flowers, which don’t look right – perhaps they don’t know Jewish traditions. Someone has even planted a Christmas tree on his grave which is decorated every year. This is a decidedly Christian tradition, which is utterly out of place here.”
“There is a rather interesting story surrounding these chestnuts on his grave. These chestnuts, and the stones. You know that Jewish cemeteries are often covered in these little stones? Well, this goes back to the forty years that the Israelites spent crossing the desert. When someone died during this time, for practical reasons, they covered the body in stones. This was so that wild animals and scavenging birds didn’t tear the body to shreds. And so from this we have the custom of laying stones on Jewish graves, which lasts until today. People have even started to do that here in this Christian cemetery too. And we even find people making Christian symbols, like crosses, out of stones on the graves here. And when stones aren’t available, people use chestnuts.”