A city as old and as rich in history as Prague has many cemeteries. Some are quite famous, others have been forgotten with time. Some are tucked away and hidden from the eyes of the general public and some are considered protected monuments and closed to the public in order to preserve the graves they contain, and others still were abandoned during the reforms of Joseph II in 1787. However, while each cemetery has its own unique location and history, they all share a common trait: their cultural and historical significance.
“The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”
― Percy Bysshe Shelley,
The cemeteries of Prague, much like the building’s in the city’s Old Town Square, offer insight into the city’s history and identity. Just like each building and street, each cemetery has its own story to tell.
The following 3 cemeteries offer a unique glimpse into the history of Prague and are worth knowing about for their important roles in history and for honoring and remembering the remarkable figures buried there.
Here are 3 of Prague’s most important cemeteries:
1. Olšany Cemetery
Olšany is the largest cemetery in the city of Prague, noted for its picturesque and peaceful atmosphere. It is home to a variety of art nouveau monuments and serves as the final resting place for a variety of notable figures.
Olšany was originally created in 1680 to accommodate victims of the plague who were dying by the masses and needed to be buried quickly. When the plague struck again in 1787, Olšany was declared as the main graveyard for the plague victims. This was because Emperor Joseph II had banned the burial of bodies within the city limits of Prague, due to hygienic reasons.
Olšany has undergone much growth since then. Notable interments include the famous Czech writer and poet, Karel Jaromír Erben, the actor Jan Werich, Josef Lada, and Jan Palach, the student who set himself on fire on Wenceslaus Square in 1969 in protest of the Soviet invasion.
2. Vyšehrad Cemetery
Vyšehrad Cemetery is relatively new when compared with Olšany, but it is incredibly important nonetheless. Vyšehrad Cemetery was established in 1869 and serves as the final resting place for various Czech cultural figures, including artists, composers, writers, and sculptors. The most famous Czechs interred here include Antonín Dvořák, Karel Čapek, Emmy Destinn, famous Czech writer Božena Němcová, Waldemar Matuška, Bedřich Smetana, Jan Neruda, Alphonse Mucha, and the romantic poet, Karel Hynek Mácha. Vyšehrad Cemetery is located in the Vyšehrad Castle complex.
3. Old Jewish Cemetery
The Old Jewish Cemetery is the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. It is especially unique because it has various burial layers. Due to a lack of space, soil was heaped on existing graves in order to make room for new additions. This explains why the cemetery is several meters higher that the streets surrounding it. In some areas, the cemetery has as many as twelve layers and retaining walls are necessary to hold the soil, and the graves, in place.
As the new layers were added, the gravestones from the older, lower graves were elevated to the new, higher surface in order to protect and preserve them. This explains the dense web of gravestones which is so characteristic of the cemetery today. Tombstones are crowded together, taking up nearly every inch of free space.
Notable people buried in the Old Jewish Cemetery include Hendl Bassevi, the first Jew in the Habsburg Empire to receive a title of nobility, Jewish printers Mordecai Katz ben Gershom and his son Betzalel, and Rabbi Judah Löw ben Betzalel, whose name is often associated with the legend of the Golem.
“I dream of a grave, deep and narrow, where we could clasp each other in our arms as with clamps, and I would hide my face in you and you would hide your face in me, and nobody would ever see us any more.”
― Franz Kafka, The Castle
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