Volunteers work on history trail through Prague's largest cemetery

Prague's Olsanske cemetery is by far the largest graveyard in the city. It is the final resting place of over a million people, including many of the leading figures of the Czech national revival and scholars and artists. You can also find there the graves of Czech legionaries from the First World War, as well as Commonwealth and Russian soldiers who lost their lives on Czechoslovak territory during the Second World War.

However, this burial ground is often the target of vandals and some of oldest parts of Olsanske cemetery are in very bad repair. But thanks to the efforts of a handful of volunteers, the old cemetery is slowly becoming an attractive place for visitors who can learn more about the stories behind the gravestones.

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
Surrounded by busy thoroughfares from all sides, the Olsanske cemetery is never a quiet place although on a weekday morning like today, it is nearly deserted. The older parts, close to the metro station Flora, are sometimes a painful sight. Among the greenery, sandstone tombs, a couple of centuries old, are nearly falling apart, their roofs caved in. Some of them have their doorways bricked up to stop unwanted guests from using them as toilets or places to sleep.

But in the oldest part of the cemetery, the view is a little more optimistic. The eye is attracted by small white tablets scattered among the graves with photos and texts paying tribute to some of the long departed. That's the work of Roman Catholic priest Milos Szabo and his parishioners from the nearby district of Zizkov.

"I started discovering the history of the place, partly because I perform funerals there. I can see how quickly the gravestones get damaged, bits of them stolen and so on. I could not look at it anymore. I first enquired with the authorities what can be done. But then I thought what can I myself do?

Milos Szabo
"I had this idea that a history trail could lead through the graveyard with signs telling the visitor which notable people are buried here. Anyone would be able to find the particular grave and pay their respects to the dead. Or for example, professional groups, such as mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers could find their great predecessors. Or teachers could tell their pupils about famous writers."

The first dead were buried in Olsany in 1680 during a plague. A chapel, now outside the cemetery, commemorates the epidemic. In 1787, Emperor Joseph II made Olsany the central cemetery for Prague. Located outside the city walls, it was a safer burial place than the old graveyards in an already overcrowded city. Father Milos Szabo is now rediscovering the history with a group of enthusiasts, in their free time and without any subsidies.

"It is very demanding work because it involves examining every single grave, crawling through the thicket, cutting off the ivy, finding out who is buried there. Then I need to find out who the person was, look them up in the archives or in encyclopaedias, take photos of the grave, write it all down, have the proofreading done, produce the actual sign and finally place it there.

With the approval of the cemetery authority, this trail is gradually expanding. Now we have the first sector covered, the second is nearing completion and I am already working on the third sector of the cemetery."

On an area of 50 hectares, the Olsanske cemetery has been described as an open air museum and gallery. Yet it is difficult to navigate and often you come across the important graves by chance. That is now changing, thanks to Father Szabo and his parishioners. The poor state of the gravestones and tombs is another matter. But as I was walking through the cemetery, I noticed at least three teams of workers putting up new roofs and plaster on some of the old tombs.