Among European and Western culture, Polish cemeteries are unique. In a remarkable display of remembrance, they are often lavishly covered in flowers, pictures, mementos and candles, particularly around Roman Catholic holidays and especially on All Saints’ Day. Strangers will often look after graves of non-family members; it’s rare to see an uncared-for or unclean tombstone.
The Polish word “zakopane” translates into English as “buried,” so it should be no surprise that one particularly notable Polish burial ground can be found in the popular ski resort town of the same name.
The Old Zakopane Cemetery (as it is commonly known), or Pęksowy Brzyzek (its actual name, meaning roughly “Pęksa’s Brook”), sits behind the old wooden Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa. The hallowed grounds contain over 500 grave sites. Some of Poland’s most celebrated denizens—particularly those hailing from the surrounding Podhale region in the Tatry mountains—can be found among those interred in the cemetery. Among the honored dead are Polish war heroes and Nazi resistance fighters, who lie side-by-side with authors, architects, mountain climbers, poets, musicians, artists, scientists, and engineers.
What really stands out are the stylistic representations of the grave markers themselves. In a stark contrast to traditional cemetery plots, the burial sites in the Old Zakopane Cemetery are adorned with memorials carved from raw rock and metal, or built in the form of tall wooden totems and sculptures. These monuments to the departed are true pieces of art in their own right, incorporating gnarly branches and moss-covered boulders, sudden visionary protrusions festooned with names and dates. The effect is a dreamy, magical, fairytale environment, with the impression that the entire ensemble is growing organically from the ground.