Prague Cemeteries: Retreats of history, art and Kafka
By Joann Plockova—
When in Prague, if you seek some respite from the hustle and bustle of the city, several cemeteries offer just that, along with history and art lessons to boot. Perhaps not the first place you think of for a quiet break, Prague’s cemeteries truly offer a silent oasis in the city. Full of trees and pleasant walking paths, they’re something akin to a city forest.
Prague is home to about 30 cemeteries that are maintained by the city. Two into which I recommend venturing are located nearly side-by-side in Prague’s third district. Both are free to enter, and hours are posted outside of each.
Olsany Cemetery (Olsanske Hrbitovy)
Praha 3 – Zizkov
Olsany has several entrances. The easiest to locate is the one just to the right of Palac Flora mall. I know it sounds weird having a mall next to a cemetery—and it is—but once down the stairs, through the gate and inside the walls, the mall melts away and is replaced by singing birds, lush trees and ivy growing everywhere.
Founded in 1680, Olsany is the oldest burial ground outside of Prague’s old city walls and the city’s largest, with nearly 1.5 million people buried within it. Comprised of 46 hectares, it was started to accommodate the increased deaths during a plague epidemic at the end of the 17th century.
The cemetery is notable for its many art nouveau monuments. Its oldest stones can be found in the northwestern corner, close to the 17th-century Chapel of St. Roch (“kaple sv Rocha”). Final resting place to actors, writers, artists, politicians and many others, a few of Olsany’s most famous inhabitants include artist and writer Josef Lada, Klement Gottwald (communist president of Czechoslovakia) and Jan Palach (a student who committed self-immolation on Wenceslas Square in 1969 in protest against the Soviet invasion).
The New Jewish Cemetery (Novy zidovsky hrbitov)
Praha 3 – Zizkov
Located on the same street, just a short walk west and across the busy intersection at Jana Zelivskeho street, the New Jewish Cemetery was built in 1891 when the Old Jewish Cemetery (located in the city center and the more familiar of the two) ran out of space. The New Jewish Cemetery is still in use today.
Home to some 100,000 graves, the New Jewish Cemetery houses tombstones in a wide range of styles including Neo-Gothic, Neo-Renaissance, Art Nouveau, Classicism, Purism and Constructivism. Many monuments were designed by the country’s best-known artists, architects and sculptors.
For example, renowned architect Jan Kotera designed two art-nouveau monuments for members of the Perutz family. Sculptor Josef Vaclav–creator of the famous St. Wenceslas statue on Wenceslas Square–created two busts that adorn one of the cemetery’s most elaborate tombs belonging to the Waldes family.
The cemetery’s most famous inhabitant is world-renowned writer Franz Kafka. When you walk into the cemetery you’ll see a sign directing you to the grave, just a short walk to the right. Designed by architect L. Ehrmann, the tomb’s shape is a hexahedral, truncated crystal. Kafka shares the burial with his parents. Just across from him on the wall is a memorial plaque to Kafka’s friend and promoter, Max Brod.
Another cemetery worth having a look at is located in the Vysehrad neighborhood. Here you will find the tombs of author Jan Neruda, writer Karel Capek, poet Karel Hynek Macha and composer Antonin Dvorak. Read more here.
Do you have a favorite cemetery in Prague? Tell us about it in our comments section.