Cemeteries Worth a Visit (this month, Czech Republic, Romania and Russia)

This item appears on page 35 of the January 2016 issue.

Liz and Jack Kaufman of Lake Quivira, Kansas, wrote, “We have visited cemeteries all around the world. The best ones combine history with beautiful gardens and superb architecture… . We would like to read travelers’ recommendations for cemeteries to visit.”

So we made these requests of subscribers: “Tell us about an interesting, special, elegant, historic or quirky cemetery that you visited outside of the US in the past few years. Tell us its name, where it’s located, approximately when you were there and what most impressed you about it… . Describe the terrain, foliage or atmosphere. Were there certain days or dates when a visit was or was not recommended? What etiquette should someone follow when visiting a cemetery in a particular country?

In the last three issues, we printed responses about cemeteries in England, Ireland & Sweden; France, and Switzerland, Germany & Italy. In this issue the locations are in the CZECH REPUBLIC, ROMANIA and RUSSIA. More to come.


Our fascination with cemeteries abroad was sparked in the fall of 2009 by the owner of a B&B in the suburbs of Prague, CZECH REPUBLIC. He strongly advised we visit the Vyšehrad Cemetery (V. Pevnosti 159/5b, CZ 128 00, Prague 2; phone +420 2 4141 0348, www.prahavysehrad.cz/lang/L2)

A carved wooden tombstone depicting a woman at a sewing machine — Merry Cemetery, Sapânta, Romania. Photo by Bob Derge

Located south of Prague’s Old Town on the grounds of the old Vyšehrad fortress, which can be reached from the metro stop of the same name, the cemetery is located next to the Church of St. Peter and Paul.

The cemetery has beautiful, ornate gravestones and rustic, winding paths. Found there are the remains of such notables as Dvořák and Smetana. 

We got hooked and have been alert to finding cemeteries elsewhere.

[The Vyšehrad Cemetery is open daily 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Nov. 1-March 31, and 9:30-6, April 1-Oct. 31. — Editor]

Liz & Jack Kaufman
Lake Quivira, KS


In the old Jewish Quarter in Prague, the Old Jewish Cemetery (Široká 3, 110 00 Praha 1, Staré Meˇsto, CZECH REPUBLIC) was created in the 15th century. Its oldest grave marker is from 1439, with the final burial having occurred in 1787.

There may be up to 100,000 Jews buried in the cemetery, which has room for about 10% of that number. Due to the nature of the Ghetto, the cemetery could not be expanded, so when the locals ran out of space, they covered the old graves with dirt and buried their dead above the prior graves. However, they raised the older stones to still be visible. Consequently, the cemetery is almost wall-to-wall tombstones. 

The cemetery survived WWII because the Nazis wanted to build a museum to an extinct people in Prague, including this cemetery. 

The cemetery can be visited as part of the Jewish Museum in Prague ticket. I visited in April 2005. 

[Admission to the Old Jewish Cemetery is included with admission to the Jewish Museum in Prague (U Staré s˘koly 1, 110 00 Praha 1; phone +420 222 749 211, www.jewishmuseum.cz/en). Closed Saturdays and Jewish holidays, the museum and its associated monuments are open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Jan. 1-March 27 & Oct. 25-Dec. 31, and 9-6, March 29-Oct. 23.]

Nili Olay, New York, NY


We’ve visited cemeteries around the world, and one that particularly stands out is Olsany Cemetery (Vinohradská 1853/153, 130 00 Prague 3, CZECH REPUBLIC; phone +420 267 310 652) in Prague. Originally established in 1680 for victims of the plague, it is the largest graveyard in Prague, once having as many as two million burials. 

We were in Prague on an Eastern European tour with Grand Circle Travel in November 2010. Our hotel, Don Giovanni (http://hotel-prag.dorint.com/en), was across the street from one entrance to the cemetery. 

A painted grave marker in the Merry Cemetery — Sapânta, Romania. Photo: McCombs

The view from our room, overlooking a portion of the cemetery, was one that stays with us. The days were overcast and rainy, adding to a gloom effect. 

On the outskirts of Prague, the cemetery is easily reached by taking the metro A to Flora. A number of the gravesites are particularly noteworthy for their Art Nouveau monuments. We found the Jewish section to be especially poignant. 

[Olsany Cemetery is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday and 8-4 Tuesday and Thursday. It’s closed for lunch 12:30-1 all days. The cemetery may be visited on Friday with an appointment.]

Jack & Ann Dini
Livermore, CA


Close to ROMANIA’s northern border with Ukraine, in the commune of Sa˘pânt¸a in Maramures¸ County, Cimitirul Vesel, or the Merry Cemetery, is located in the Church of the Assumption churchyard. 

The Merry Cemetery is where, in 1935, local artisan Stan Ioan Pa˘tras¸  started carving representations of each deceased person’s life, usually including a poem containing humor, on the wooden grave markers. It became a popular place to be interred, if one could afford it.

I visited in 2004 while on a private tour of Romania. 

Patricia Minami
Brookeville MD


The cemetery my husband and I found that was so interesting was the Merry Cemetery in northern ROMANIA, which we visited in October 2014. The grave markers were painted wood, each with a picture of what the person did in life plus inscriptions in Romanian.

Lou Noess, Des Moines, WA


I would recommend visiting the Merry Cemetery in the small town of Sapânta, Maramures¸, ROMANIA. My wife, Sonia, and I visited in June 2006 and again in 2007. 

Each grave’s cross, of hand-carved wood, tells a story of the deceased. Some tell of what they did in life, and many tell how they died. 

Bob Derge, Covington, KY 


My husband, Ed, and I visited Eastern European countries in 1997. One of the places we went to in ROMANIA was the Merry Cemetery in the village of Sapânta. Famed for its colorful grave markers, the cemetery is an open-air museum and a national tourist attraction.

What impressed us most was the beauty of the grave markers and the colorful flowers planted in the cemetery. In 1935, a local artist, Stan Ioan Patras, carved the first epitaph. Now there are more than 800.

Nell Q. McCombs
Ventura CA


On a tour of Moscow on May 21, 2007, some friends and I descended into the Moscow Metro, bought our tickets and rode the very crowded red line to the southwestern part of the city. 

We walked to the Novodevichy Cemetery & Convent (Novode­vichy Passage 1, 119435 Moscow, RUSSIA; phone +7 499 246 08 81, www.mepar.ru [in Russian only]), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we experienced one of the highlights of our city visit. 

We encountered only a few other tourists as we leisurely walked around the cemetery — a combination celebrity burial ground, garden, arboretum and sculpture gallery — which was incredibly atmospheric. The scent of lush lilacs was intoxicating. 

There were elaborate tombstones decorated with lovely statuary and sculptured faces, and the graves were covered or strewn with many flowers, both real and artificial, especially red carnations (which, in Russia, symbolize death). 

Grave of the original artist who carved and painted many of the markers in the Merry Cemetery — Sapânta, Romania. Photo by Bob Derge

Buried there are well-known musicians (Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Rubinstein, Scriabin), authors (Chekhov, Gogol), painters (Levitan), artists of other genres (the filmmaker Eisenstein, theater director Stanislavski), famous ballerina Galina Ulanova, opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, actress Lyubov Orlova, famous clown Yuri Nikulin, familiar political figures from the past (Molotov, Khrushchev, Gromyko), famous political wives (Stalin’s wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva, who some believe committed suicide in 1932, and former first lady Raisa Gorbachyova), anarchist Kropotkin, military generals, cosmonaut Belyayev and victims of aviation disasters.

At the time, former president Boris Yeltsin and musician Mstislav Rostropovich had recently been buried, and both of their graves were covered with elaborate funereal wreaths.

It was fascinating to learn that Nikita Khrushchev, the Communist leader who came to power unexpectedly after Stalin’s death and who had so infamously led the USSR during my childhood, was buried there in 1971 with no official ceremony and not in the Soviet Necropolis on Red Square with most other Soviet leaders. (After having been deposed in a coup in 1964, he had become a “nonperson.”) 

We left the cemetery agreeing that every person visiting Moscow should include a visit to this cemetery.

[The monastery where the Novodevichy (New Maidens) Cemetery is located is open daily, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.]

Cathy Briner, Eugene, OR 


On a free morning during a 2004 Christmas trip to St. Petersburg, two of us hired a car and driver to go to Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery (Pr. Nepokorennykh 72, 195273, St. Petersburg, RUSSIA; phone +7 812 297 5716, http://pmemorial.ru/eng-memorial). During World War II, this was in the northeastern suburb of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad). Now it’s within the city. 

This cemetery is a bleak memorial to the nearly two million people who died during the Siege of Leningrad, September 1941 to January 1944. 

Thousands of corpses were dragged on sleds to collection points, from which they were taken to several cemeteries outside of town. Piskarevskoye cemetery is the largest, with over 400,000 people buried in mass graves (mounds) marked only by the year and a star, if the graves were for military personnel, or a hammer and sickle for civilians. 

People walking past burial mounds toward the statue of Mother Russia in Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery. Photos by James F. Olander

Near the entrance to the cemetery are two small memorial halls containing information on the siege. At the end of a 984-foot-long avenue is a heroic bronze statue of Mother Russia holding a wreath. On the wall behind the statue is a verse composed by the poet Olga Berholz. Her famous line, “No one is forgotten. Nothing is forgotten,” is engraved on the wall. As I walked through the cemetery, somber funeral music was broadcast. 

The night before we visited, it snowed. In the morning it was icy cold, probably nearing zero degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind was sharp and cutting, with periodic blasts of cold air, yet an attendant had shoveled a path from the entrance to the memorial. 

We had to bundle up with scarves and many layers of clothing to be out there. I had on two pairs of gloves. The sky was a steel-gray color. The frozen trees, with a dusting of fresh snow, added to the mood. 

Statue of Mother Russia — Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery.

It’s customary to place flowers at the Mother Russia statue. Our hotel had small, red roses as a table decoration. I asked if we could buy one flower. The waitress asked why I wanted it. When I told her it was to take to Piskarevskoye Cemetery, the ladies gave us four flowers wrapped in paper, one each for us and two to take for them. I offered to pay, but they said ‘No.’ 

At the cemetery, by the time we reached the statue, our flowers were frozen, but we placed them on the statue’s marble base. When we left one of the memorial halls, the attendant whispered, “Spasibo” (“Thank you”).

[Piskarevskoye Memorial Cemetery is open daily, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. in spring and summer and 9-6 in fall and winter.]

James F. Olander
Arlington, VA

Next month, cemeteries to see in Asia and the South Pacific.