Czech Cemeteries and Burial

What you are, we were. What we are, you will be.

Inscription on cemetery entrance gate, Czech cemetery

I really like that saying. And I really like cemeteries too.

Pustá Rybná cemetery – Catholics on the right, others on the left

Today is All Souls Day (Dušičky). It’s an important day to Czechs, and they will spend the day visiting and decorating cemeteries, and lighting candles for those they remember.

Czech families are proud of their family plot. There are lots of flowers and decorations. And at night, lots of lighted candles.

If you visit a Czech cemetery, it’s customary to leave a lighted candle. If you can’t find the particular grave, then you leave the candle at the central cross or chalice. Catholic cemeteries have a central cross, protestant cemeteries have a chalice.

Burial Customs

In the villages, the cemeteries are quite small. And they’re located around the churchyard, usually surrounded by a wall.

There’s no way to fit hundreds of people over hundreds of years into individual graves. So they reuse the same grave over and over.

Each family has a plot. And all family members are buried there.

Traditionally, a wooden coffin is used. So the coffin and the body decompose after years.

When the grave is opened, any remnants of the previous occupant are placed into a bag, and moved to the head of the grave. The new resident is then buried in the same grave.

With cremations becoming more common, it’s easier to accomplish.

The family plot is rented, perhaps for twenty years. If the family dies out, or moves, or emigrates to America, perhaps the rent isn’t renewed. Then the plot can be rented to some other family.

So headstones are changed and updated, as new people are buried. There aren’t any ancient tombstones or any old dates on headstones.

Or, the family has a monument with only the surname. Do all these people have the first name “Rodina”? No, Rodina is the Czech word for “family”.

Our Teply graves?

These customs make for scenic and thoughtful places to visit, but it’s a genealogist’s lament. Whatever headstones our Teply ancestors may have had in the 1700s and 1800s are long gone, replaced by newer ones.

What about locating the family plot? All cemeteries are now administered by the town hall. The church parishes turned over all records. But very few are digitized, and most aren’t available for research. And the European Union has strict privacy laws. So cemetery records are not easily available.

Some say the best way to locate a family plot is to locate living relatives in the village, and see if they know the history of their plot. Probably not going to happen for our Teplys.

At the cemeteries we visited, there are many Teply family graves. So we’ll just imagine that these are our family plots.

History

The Habsburg Emperor Joseph II implemented many reforms. These included new dictates involving cemeteries and burials.

  • Cemeteries in the churchyard or village center should be closed. New cemeteries should be started outside the town.
  • Cemeteries should not be located near ground water
  • Cemeteries should be enclosed by a wall
  • Coffins should be reusable, or the body removed at time of burial
  • Body should be in linen bag, with no clothes or items to prevent decomposition
  • Graves should not have flowers or decorations
  • Gravestones should be at the perimeter wall, and not at each grave

Czechs were ruled by Habsburgs for hundreds of years. Whenever an unpopular new rule was imposed, we said, “Great idea. We’ll do that just as soon as we have time.” 250 years after Joseph’s cemetery directive, we haven’t had time yet. So the cemeteries remain as they were.

Miroslav Koudelka, in his presentation “Cemeteries in the Czech Republic”, CGSI Conference – October 2019

Joseph II practiced as he preached. Here’s his simple sarcophagus in the Habsburg imperial cyrpt in Vienna. It sits in front of his mom’s – Empress Maria Theresa.


Sources

  • Miroslav Koudelka, in his presentation “Cemeteries in the Czech Republic”, CGSI Conference – October 2019
  • Cemetery satellite photos – Google Maps – 2019
  • Bildnis Kaiser Joseph II – Carl von Sales – posthumous – 1823
  • Photos – Mark Jarvis – October 2019

The saying “What you are, we were; what we are, you will be”:

The saying might be first attributed to the crypt in Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini in Rome.

“A plaque in one of the chapels reads, in three languages, “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” This is a memento mori.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Santa_Maria_della_Concezione_dei_Cappuccini

The saying was also used at the entrance to Pecenka Bohemian Cemetery in Marshall County, Kansas, where Josephine Petras Teply Swoboda is buried.

The History of Marshall County, Kansas – Emma J. Forter – 1917, p. 215

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