The city’s gardens of stone offer a retreat from the overly touristed center.
Visitors to Prague can be quickly overwhelmed by how crowded the main tourist attractions are. But the city’s cemetery row offers a few quiet and peaceful places, filled with interesting sculptures and centuries of history.
Prague, which is over 1,000 years old, has all manner of resting places for the departed. One area, though, has five cemeteries in a row, each with a distinctive mood. Tombstones for famous people, forgotten scholars, controversial politicians, and victims of wars and epidemics can be found along with touching personal tributes to everyday people.
The largest by far is Olšany Cemeteries (Olšanské hřbitovy), technically 12 cemeteries joined together. Flush against it but separated by a high wall is the New Jewish Cemetery (Nový židovský hřbitov), with a separate entrance so it can be closed on Saturdays.
One street away is the Vinohrady Cemetery (Vinohradský hřbitov), which connects to the modern Strašnice Crematorium (Krematorium Strašnice). Across the street from them is the German Evangelical Cemetery (Německý evangelický hřbitov), newly reopened after having been closed since the end of World War II.
Most of the cemeteries have maps near the entrance pointing out the graves of significant people. Paper pamphlets are sometimes available at Olšany Cemeteries and Vinohrady Cemetery in a plastic mailbox by the entrance.
A key factor in the development of Prague’s cemetery row was a 1787 decree by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Joseph II banning cemeteries within city limits in an effort to stop the spread of the plague. These cemeteries were at the time far outside the city walls.
Most days of the year, the cemeteries are empty of life save for a handful of people tending to graves of loved ones. On or near All Souls Day, which falls on Nov. 2, the cemeteries are filled with people. It is called Dušičky in Czech. Whole families turn up to place floral arrangements, small statues, child’s toys and candles on graves. At twilight, the large array of candles can be a beautiful sight.
Prague’s largest cemetery covers 50.17 hectares, and has a busy road going down its center. It used to be outside of Prague in the now-extinct village of Olšany, which long ago was absorbed into the city. Like many Prague cemeteries, it began as a mass grave for epidemic victims.
It was consecrated in 1680, and in the northwest corner of the cemetery there is the round Church of St Roch, dedicated to one of the patrons that protects against plague.
The entry next to the Church of St Roch takes people into the oldest section, with some impressive tombstones and markers. One for a pair of girls who died young ranks among the creepiest in the city. Broken crosses, damaged statues and neglected mausoleums give it a Gothic horror movie ambiance.
Many graves that could not be identified or those that distant relatives showed no interest in preserving have been removed to create open space for new graves.
As you progress through the cemetery, the graves become more modern, many with enamel photos of the occupants. More recent ones have portraits sandblasted directly into the stone.
Once you cross the main road into the second section, the dominant feature is a functioning Russian Orthodox church called the Church of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin (Chrám Zesnutí přesvaté Bohorodice), with an elaborate gold-tiled icon mosaic above the door and a green copper onion dome.
This part of the cemetery has rows of crosses for victims of World War I, British Commonwealth graves of RAF pilots from World War II, Soviet war dead, a monument to soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars, and fields for spreading ashes, as well as space for ordinary people.
One legend related to the cemetery is that of a shy vampire who waits for people to trip and cut their knees so he can lick up the blood.
Other point of interest is the grave of esoteric writer Pierre de Lasenic and herbal healer Jan Mikolášek. Many Czech or Czechoslovak writers, artists and actors are also buried there. The most famous are for illustrator Josef Lada and acting duo Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich.
From the realm of politics, there is the final resting place of Jan Palach, the man who set himself on fire in 1969 to protest the effects of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.
A lesson in hubris can be found at the grave of communist-era president Klement Gottwald, who led Czechoslovakia in the darkest days of Stalinism. His remains were once in a vast hilltop mausoleum, along with what at the time was the world’s largest equestrian statue. After the fall of communism in 1989, he and over 20 other leaders were cremated and put in a mass grave with a simple marker on a dead end path in an obscure section of Olšany Cemeteries.
New Jewish Cemetery
The most famous occupant of the cemetery is author Franz Kafka, whose remains are under an eight-sided stone prism, along with other family members.
Hopeful writers and well-wishers leave little notes under pebbles piled at the base of the grave. On the wall opposite Kafka’s tomb there is a plaque for writer and editor Max Brod, who decided to publish Kafka’s work after the author’s death instead of destroying it as he had requested.
The cemetery is still in use, and writer Arnošt Lustig, who died in 2011, is buried there. Lustig wrote the screenplay for the Holocaust drama Diamonds of the Night and novels such as A Prayer For Katerina Horowitzowa and Lovely Green Eyes.
Established in 1885, Vinohrady Cemetery lacks the spooky Gothic charm of Olšany Cemeteries but its rambling 10 hectares have some 16,000 graves. It was particularly popular with wealthy families in the early 20th century, and many people had sculpted busts or elaborate portraits on their markers.
It is technically full, but new occupants can go into family tombs or limited spaces for urns.
The cemetery’s most famous occupant is Czechoslovak and Czech President Václav Havel, who died in 2011. His cremated remains are in the family tomb in a colonnade on the side of the St Wenceslas Chapel, the cemetery’s dominant feature.
There is another Czech president in Vinohrady Cemetery. While Havel is regarded as the best so far, Emil Hácha is regarded as one of the worst, though there is stiff competition. Hácha was a Nazi collaborator who led the World War II occupation government.
He died in prison in 1945, which has widely been speculated to be a murder but nobody cared to ever investigate. The grave was long unmarked but now has a large black stone with his name and former title. Right-wing groups sometimes leave wreaths on the stone slab.
Among the artists and writers, two stand out: comic strip writer Jaroslav Foglar, who was associated with the Scouting movement, and investigative journalist Egon Erwin Kisch.
The largest crematorium in Europe was opened in 1932. Cremation had been illegal from the middle of the 1600s up until the start of the First Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. The main building, a protected cultural monument, has two ceremonial halls. The building is surrounded by small graves sites for urns and columbariums, or wall niches for urns.
In the communist era, the crematorium was used to dispose of the bodies of so-called enemies of the state, whose ashes would be scattered in forests or other places without any records kept.
But it also served all manner of other people and is still in use, as cremation is quite popular in the Czech Republic.
Two of its notable occupants are Czechoslovak President Antonín Zápotocký and actress Lída Baarová, who was the mistress of German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. She avoided being convicted of collaboration and died alone on her estate in 2000 at the age of 86.
Zápotocký followed after Klement Gottwald and is not fondly remembered. His name is mixed in with other family members, without any fanfare.
German Evangelical Cemetery
What for decades was an overgrown and abandoned collection of graves has been cleaned up and restored. Those who venture in this small and quaint graveyard are all but guaranteed to have the place, with many dilapidated monuments, completely to themselves.
The cemetery dates back to 1795, and is rather small compared to the others on this list. There were, before the restoration, some 598 graves and 54 tombs, the oldest of which dated to 1828.
The cemetery effectively closed in 1945, when most of the German population was expelled from Czechoslovakia. The chapel was turned over the Czechoslovak Hussite Church in 1955, and plans were made to level the cemetery and make a sports area.
But communist-era inefficiency saved it, as nothing was done.
The idea to renovate it first arose in 2000, and when relatives of the occupants were contacted to pay fees for upkeep, many instead sold the tombstones. The same type of monument is popular in Eastern Europe, and changing the names with a new plaque on the front is not that difficult. This has led to big gaps in the fields.
It finally reopened in 2015, and new burials with modern tombstones have started. These contrast sharply with the older, more ornate monuments.
A new glass map at the entrance points out some of the significant graves.
In 2012, a documentary called Love in a Grave (Láska v hrobě) focused on a homeless couple, an ex-prostitute and an out-of-work mason, who were squatting in the cemetery. The film won several awards.
Main image: Overgrown section of the German Evangelical Cemetery