scenic photo

Czech Burial Tradition

This article is based on my experiences during visits to several Czech cemeteries. Much of it is conjecture based on my observations, so please report errors in my conclusions and descriptions. ---K.M. Fowler, Jr.

There are at least four distinct types of cemetery memorials in the Czech Republic:

1) family burial plots,

2) tombs with vaults,

3) mausoleums with crypts,

3) urn banks.

From the perspective of a person from the USA or Canada, perhaps the most startling discovery about Czech cemeteries is that plots are not "owned for eternity" by the deceased, but are rented/leased by living family members. At some point after a family no longer continues to pay rent, the plot becomes available to the public again. The stone may or may not be removed when a new family takes possession. Often it stays there and a piece of flat stone or a black glass plate is used to cover the previous occupants' information. New inscriptions are carved into the attached cover. Eventually these break or fall off as a direct result of ivy vines growing in-between the two layers, and slowly spreading them apart until the old is once again revealed. During the project we photographed both the old and new sets of family information when the opportunity presented itself.

On one occasion I noticed an entire headstone in a dumpster where leaves had been collected by the cemetery maintenance crew. I suspect the stone was to be recycled, and we did capture the genealogical information on digital film for future generations.

Some of the abandoned mausoleums were sealed off with chains or by brick and mortar perhaps for non-payment of rent. One was being used to store cemetery maintenance equipment and tools. I suspect these structures have been left in place either due to a lack of funds to destroy them or for historical reasons.

All over North America a sandblaster is used to "carve" headstones, but skilled stone masons in the Czech Republic still do it the old-fashioned way. They use carbide-tipped chistles and an authentic mason's hammer to hand-carve all lettering. Such perfection is achieved that one would have little doubt the finest numeric controlled equipment had been used!

Czech Christmas tradition requires a trip to the cemetery to visit family graves and light a candle. I had an opportunity to join a family at Christmas for this event. It was very touching to see a massive number of people moving quietly through the cemetery in the cold of winter leaving warm glowing candles on visited grave sites. Lighted candles are typically left during cemetery visits throughout the year. Many cemeteries have a small shop nearby where candles and ornaments are available for purchase.