For a cemetery created in the hectic panic of a plague epidemic, Prague’s sprawling Olšany Cemetery is a beautifully planned public work.
In the 17th century it was considered unhygienic to bury the corpses of plague victims within city limits, so a large cemetery was designated in 1680 for this very purpose. When plague struck again a century later, Emperor Joseph II enacted a series of hygiene reforms and Olšany became the city’s official cemetery. It was continually used up until the 20th century, when a number of elaborate art nouveau grave monuments made the cemetery a place for sightseers, not just mourners.
Olšany Cemetery is the largest in Prague and one of the largest in Czechia This is because it is comprised of 12 different sections. The New Jewish Cemetery was created to replace the Old Jewish Cemetery, and included a small Orthodox section. An even smaller Muslim section sits on the opposite side of the graveyard. A “Learning Trail” provides a historical walk through the graves. Visitors can walk from the 17th century graves at the north end of the cemetery to the filigreed mausoleums of the 20th century near the center.
The crisply groomed military cemetery marks a stark contrast to the leaning, ivy-covered graves of earlier centuries. Soldiers from a range of conflicts are interred here, from the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century to World War II. Many Czech soldiers who died fighting for their country’s independence are buried here, and so are members of the Soviet Red Army who died fighting in Czechoslovakia. As per an agreement between Czechia and Russia, each maintains the graves of their former who died on their soil.
Picturesque setting aside, people come to Olšany to pay their respects to their deceased loved ones as well as some famous figures in Czech history. A number of actors, writers, and painters are buried here, as are Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself in protest of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Pavel Roman, one of the first celebrity ice skaters.