Prague cemeteries seek funerals revamp

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

There are some thirty cemeteries in Prague and at this time of year, they turn into pleasant islands of greenery offering a peaceful oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of life in the capital. But a walk through some of the city's burial grounds will reveal that many of the graves are actually crumbling and neglected. In this week's edition of Czech Life, RF looks at the grim state of funeral culture in the Czech Republic and at some of the initiatives, which are trying to improve it:

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
Czechs don't have a great reputation when it comes to bidding last farewells to their loved ones. An increasing number of Czechs are buried without a ceremony, a trend which is attributed mainly to the abolishment of funeral benefits in 2008. The number of burials without a ceremony is currently estimated somewhere between 35 and 40 percent.

With 27 crematoriums, the Czech Republic has the highest cremation rate in Europe. Some 80 percent of all burials end up in cremations, and in Prague alone, the figure is estimated at 97 percent. As a result of these trends, it is no surprise that the number of abandoned graves keeps growing.

Martin Červený is the head of the Prague Cemeteries Authority:

„I think the reason is that the Czech society is very secular and atheist, as a consequence of the Communist regime. So I would say it is a question of the past fifty or sixty years. Unlike in the neighbouring states or in the rest of Europe, our society is very pragmatic in terms of not really caring what will happen with their relatives' or even with their own remains.”

But the situation may not be as grim as it might seem at the first sight. The Prague Cemeteries Authority has recently come up with a number of initiatives, which attempt to change the public attitude towards funerals and to improve the funeral culture in the country.

One of the most interesting initiatives is the competition entitled Funeral design, recently launched in cooperation with the Czech Design Centre, in which artists were asked to come up with a new design of gravestones and urns. Martin Červený outlines the reasons behind the competition:

„For me, the main reason was the gradually declining quality of sepulchral architecture and the design of the tombstones. And in a broader sense I was also interested in improving the funeral culture in this country.

“Unlike in the neighbouring states or in the rest of Europe, our society is very pragmatic in terms of not really caring what will happen with their relatives' or even with their own remains.”

“Nowadays, people either buy an already existing tombstone or they chose something in a catalogue. The tombstones are often prefabricated, imported from Asia, and they don’t have a high artistic value. People don’t realize that they can actually have something tailor made to their needs by a designer or an artist.”

The Funeral design competition has raised an unexpected interest, with more than 320 artists participating taking part the project. The jury has already selected the winners and the results will be officially announced in mid-June.

Some of the best examples of what “designer graves” looked like in the past can be seen at Prague's Vyšehrad cemetery, situated on the rock above the Vltava River. Its pantheon provides the resting place for dozens of important figures of Czech culture, such as Antonín Dvořák, Ema Destinová or Karel Čapek.

But even the graves of famous people get abandoned, which is something another initiative is trying to prevent:

“Adoption of graves is first of all an attempt to improve the overall design of the cemeteries, which function as public spaces. Many graves of once famous people have no one to look after them, and they are closed. That's the case for instance of the genial architect Pavel Janák, who ended up in a mass grave because there was no one to pay for it.

“So as you can see, this problem concerns well-known names as well. The project of adopting graves benefits from famous people's legacy. We try to attract sponsors who would look after these graves. We currently have around eighty of them and the number keeps growing.”

The Prague Cemeteries Authority is also planning an extensive reconstruction of the Olšany cemetery, the country’s biggest burial ground, and the oldest cemetery in Prague outside the old city walls. The project is done in cooperation with Prague Institute of Planning and Development:

Martin Červený | Photo: Czech Television
„Together we are planning an architectural competition focused on Olšanské hřbitovy. Another thing we are dealing with are the small, practical details, for instance the benches that people install at their tombs, the location of the dustbins, or the changes people make to historical tombstones. We have decided to produce a sort of manual for cemeteries, something the Institute has already produced for the city of Prague.”

The Prague Cemeteries Authority has already launched a reconstruction of some of the larger chapel graves at Olšany cemetery. One of them is set to become a museum of funeral culture in the future:

“One of the largest chapel graves, which is in currently in the worst condition, will be devoted to the history of the place, to the people who are buried there, but also to the specifics of funeral culture of that time. We have been cooperating on this project with the National Museum. We have helped them with their current exhibition entitled Death and we wanted to continue working together.”

But unquestionably the biggest project initiated by the Prague Cemeteries Authority this year is the establishment of a natural burial ground, which is set to open in Prague’s district of Ďáblice in mid-May.

The project is carried out by To the Roots initiative, which was established a few years ago by three students of social studies and anthropology at the Masaryk University in Brno.

I met with one of the founders of To the Roots, Monika Suchánská, to find out more:

“To the Roots is the first natural burial movement initiative in the Czech republic. We try to enliven Czech funeral rituals and bring some new, green impulses to the rigid funeral business.”

“There are no headstones in the Wood of Memories, just trees with memorial plaques and with names of the deceased.”

In what ways do you find the traditional burials conservative? And what kind of alternative do you offer?

“We found the current funeral rituals too cold and impersonal for people and therefore they try to avoid it. Nearly half of the bereaved people are not interested in organising funerals, which presents some 6,000 direct cremations a year. We believe it is because people find the conventional funerals in crematoria too cold and impersonal.

“So we are trying to respect people's wishes and needs and to help them create more meaningful and personal funerals.”

As far as I know, the alternative burial movement is also concerned about ecology.

“That's right. Natural burial movement deals with ecological aspect of funerals as well. Here in the Czech Republic and in the Western culture, generally, it is a big problem. Burials are a burden to the environment. It’s a lot of non-biodegradable materials are being used. So we are trying to offer more ecological materials. Own hand-made urns from paper mache, so it is more ecological and more aesthetically pleasing I guess.

All these reasons led you to opening the Wood of memories. Can you tell me more about the project?

The Wood of Memories opens on May 23. There are no headstones, just trees with memorial plaques and names of the deceased. We bury ashes to the roots of trees. Wood of Memories is also a place for ceremonies.

Your initiative also offers counselling to the bereaved. What do these people need most, from your own experience?

“From our academic research we see the problem that most of the ceremony halls in crematoria look like they did before the Velvet Revolution. People don’t want to go there and say goodbye to their loved ones.

“So we are trying to bring more creativity and innovation in funeral planning and organisation. We also try to be more ethical when we talk to the bereaved and we try to offer more compassion.

Would you say death is still a taboo in the Czech society?

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“The situation is changing but when we talk to people we can feel that it depends on how you chose to talk to them. If we open the topic of dying and funerals and talk to them directly but kindly, it can change their point of view. So we hope that we are helping to break this taboo.”

What kind of reactions have you encountered?

“There are mostly good reactions. People are thankful that we humanize the approach to dying, which is very good to hear.