Tallinn’s oldest cemetery—a 16th-century graveyard located in the historic suburb of Kalamaja— was controversially transformed in the 1960s into a recreation park during the Soviet occupation. Recently, recognition of the park’s importance to Estonian cultural heritage has led to its restoration and it is now a space for both recreation and memory. Several of the ancient tombstones have been retrieved and are gathered on display by the original baroque gate tower, and a special area marks former burial spots.
Today, the multi-functional park is a local favorite. Lacking the grandiosity of Kadriorg Park (the location of the former palace across town) and off the tourist trail, Kalamaja Park is a place for contemplation and simpler joys. It maintains its beauty year-round, whether you visit in the long, gray winter when the park is covered in snow, or in the spring, when the snow melts and gives way to a lush carpet of mosses and ferns thriving under a dense canopy of trees.
The trees are its crowning glory, left undisturbed over the years to grow tall and strong atop and amidst the former graves. If you look carefully, you can see the roots of one tree fiercely entwined around the remains of a broken grave fence that could not be fully removed by the occupied forces when they set about repurposing the cemetery. It serves as a poignant reminder of Estonia’s turbulent past and the struggle to preserve and record Estonian history and culture. Of course, knowing the park’s history as a former cemetery and its sorry story of neglect and reappropriation contributes to its unique and soulful ambiance.
If you visit the park after dusk in November on Hingedepäev — Estonia’s All Soul’s Festival — you may see the park’s footpaths lined with burning candles in memory of ancestors past.