A tale of two cemeteries

19-02-2005

For most of my life I lived in the northern Prague district of Bohnice. For many Czechs that place name has a metaphorical meaning of "madhouse". That is because between 1906 and 1911 when Bohnice was still a tiny village north of Prague, a large mental hospital was built there, with small houses scattered around a large English-style park, centred around an Art Nouveau church - all up to the standard of the time.

The institution also had its own graveyard, located out in the fields, even further from the village than old Jewish and Protestant cemeteries used to be from villages in Bohemia and Moravia. As if the tortured minds of the dead patients could disturb the living. Nevertheless, the cemetery was one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.

It was usually deserted, as the people buried there long ago had no living relatives or family who cared. It was sober and tidy, with a small chapel and only a few larger tombs belonging to the doctors or patients from well-off families. It was also the resting place of many soldiers from WWI who never overcame their post traumatic stress disorders and spent the rest of their lives in the Bohnice hospital. That's how I remember the cemetery from my childhood. Already in the late 1980s the proximity of a large housing estate had a noxious effect on the place. It attracted vandals, drug addicts and sprayers. The chapel became a dormitory, a lavatory and an injecting room all at once. In less than a decade it crumbled to pieces. Eventually, the cemetery had to be closed to the public, its doors locked to all those who just wanted to pick sweet-smelling violets in the spring or stroll among the crosses and number plates on the graves of those who died nameless.

A few years ago, just outside the cemetery walls, some enterprising businessman opened a pet cemetery. You should have seen it at Christmas time. All the tiny graves, often complete with a photo or effigy and pedigree of the pet, were covered with rubber toys, Christmas cookies, dog-collars, food bowls and all sorts of trinkets and colourful kitsch, you name it.

The place was crowded with the "bereaved", mourning their deceased dogs. Some middle aged ladies even brought camping seats to sit down at the grave of their Ajax, Bobik or Max, light a cigarette and contemplate about the passing nature of life. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image" and "worshipping the golden calf" were the expressions that sprang to my mind when I saw all this last Christmas Eve.

And I felt a great sadness when I realised that all this was only a very fitting reflection of the spirit of the time. An old graveyard, the resting place of our ill ancestors and soldiers who fought for this country, has fallen into disrepair and is condemned to oblivion and destruction. And right next to it - full of people, loud and garish, a grotesque and I dare say blasphemous imitation - a cemetery of the dog, the new god.

19-02-2005