In the year 1679 a piece of land owned by a farmer was sold to the town of Prague. That land was located in the village of Olšany, not far from the old town. The reason for the business was the plague which struck and subsequently took the lives of more than 30,000 people that year, generating the need for new burial places and more ground to lodge them.
When the Black Death knocked the at the door of the town once more in the year 1715 and again 1716 the place was extended even further. At the end of the XVIII century the emperor Joseph II Augsburg, concerned about town hygiene, decided to close the town cemeteries and move them outside the city walls, he even took the precaution of relocating the graves, which went to Olšany.
Since then Olšany has become the largest cemetery on the right side of the river. The actual size of this large necropolis is about 50 hectares (150 acres) with a total of 112,000 graves; more then 2,000 000 people have been buried there since it came into existence.
It is the burial place of many famous people from Czech history such as Jan Neruda, Josef Jungmann, Jan Werich and Jan Palach (whose grave is one of the most visited today.) The cemetery is cut in half by the busy main road Želivského. It is further divided into many sections, amongst them are places for soldiers from the first and second world war, the Orthodox and the (New) Jewish Cemetery, where the grave of Franz Kafka and his friend Max Brod are located.
What makes this cemetery fascinating to me, is its vastness and the atmosphere that you can breath-in there. The trees separate it from the rest of the town, capturing its noise and hiding it visually. It is not a park, but nor is it a scary place. It is a place where you feel peace. Many people from Prague, including me, have some of their relatives buried there. Since childhood you are used to going there with your family to remember those who went away. The symbology of the graves is mostly catholic, but today this reflects more a traditional attitude, rather than what people generally believe.
Some of the graves are little monuments celebrating the lives of those who are buried under them. Here the difference between rich and poor is evident, even after death. People stop at their great graves to admire them and read the messages which are left there, but I think nobody really feels envious of them. Still each stone is different, it tells you a short story about the man or woman who lays there, their aspirations, their failures; you have an idea of the uses and customs of the people that left this world before you. The dead sometimes can tell you more than the living about where you are.
I came there at dusk to make this picture story. What I found were old ladies, like my grandmother, taking care of their family graves. This place is mostly for elderly people, they came there with a plastic bottle and old newspapers to clean the stones from the leaves and to light a candle. There was a strong sense of decadence that day. In the old part of the cemetery, one grave was open so that you could see the coffins. Many graves have been damaged in recent years through negligence, petty thieves or Satanists. Even flowers sometimes are stolen to be sold again and so they are replaced with plastic ones. It happened to our family too. The price of a grave could be that of a small apartment, so many people have their ash simply spread on a small field (the spreading field) both for choice or economy.
It is like if the time stopped here, whilst the rest of the city is left to its economic boom and development, somebody seems to have forgotten about this place. At the new shopping centre that was built at the edge of the cemetery, while you are eating your “happy meal” on the top floor, you can experience one of the best views of the cemetery: its crumbling graves, old ladies and newly installed guides and guard dogs.