June, 2001

I’ve been meaning to write about the village cemetery near my home.

Nebušice is a village of about 10,000 people, by my estimate, at least a quarter of which seem to be foreigners housed near the the International School of Prague. It is located on the outskirts of Prague: one can easily tell that it has only recently become a bedroom community of the capital. The “villageness” persists in its well-tended little church; in its always-busy potráviny or grocery store; in its neighborhood restaurant/tavern; and in its tiny village center. This is along the European “high street” model with a series of small stores and a post office tucked behind the potráviny and reachable only on foot.

On weekdays Nebušice seems to be inhabited almost entirely by babičkas, those ubiquitous old ladies with their wheeled shopping carts. I have concluded that either babičkas must spend an inordinate amount of time shopping, or a lot of them must be much younger that they look. Otherwise how could such a large percentage of the population apparently fall into this category?

The potraviny stocks the usual loose rohlicky, or rolls, in bins along the wall as well as individual bottles of excellent beer, unappetizing canned meat, pork, and fish, and boxed long-life milk. But, no doubt in a nod to the heavy concentration of expatriates, the tiny store also offers Italian pasta, olive oil, and various other exotic goodies. I quite like the place, as a matter of fact!

The body of the village is a curious mix of run-down, ancient cottages with lace curtains in the windows, and spiffed-up places painted in bright pastel colors with nice cars out front and satellite dishes on the roof. Some more modern houses look like very out-of-place ski lodges: 3 stories tall with wooden balconies and geraniums. These usually come with a Volvo.

The village is surrounded on 3 sides by national parkland. The šarka named after a mythical Slavic heroine, has been carved out of the granite bluffs that ring the city, and is thickly forested and crisscrossed with biking and hiking trails. It is truly a wonderful resource, and both Czechs and foreigners appreciate it and take good care of it, for the most part.

At the bottom of Mala šarka, the expensive new development which houses a large portion of the expatriate population of Prague (the ones who don’t live in Nebušice or nearby Horomérice) there is a farmhouse with a path next to it. Follow this path through the woods and eventually you come across the small cemetery where the village’s dead live. It is at least two hundred years old, surrounded by a tall brick and stucco wall with tiles on the top. The cemetery climbs up the hill into the forest. At the lowest point there are huge wooden doors that probably haven’t been opened in the last century, and a smaller wrought-iron gate along with a sign asking people to leave their dogs outside.

Once inside the walls, you are in a tranquil place. Tall hazelnut and oak trees shelter rows and rows of graves. Usually, an entire family is buried in one spot under one headstone. I am not sure how this is accomplished, but I imagine that cremation has been the practice around here for some time. Many of the graves have a small glass-covered shrine-like opening in the headstone in which are placed urns, framed photos, flowers, and other offerings. This reminds me of the dead in Latin America, who are periodically treated to food or liquor poured directly on the grave (the flowers don’t do quite as well there, obviously…)

Some of the headstones have photographs of the occupant on them-the weirdest of these are the ones that are superimposed directly on black granite so that the stone seems to be possessed by a spirit within.

Nearly all the graves have a garden on top of them enclosed by low concrete barriers. Some are planted in a (very Czech) orderly pattern of rows of begonias, marigolds, or other compact little flowers. Others have vines trailing romantically around and over the stones. Some have seasonal decoration such as baskets of Easter eggs or a tiny tree decorated with Moravian painted eggs. One simply boasts newly planted grass, as flawless and soft as a golf course. (Maybe the fellow underneath liked to golf and his family decided to turn him into a putting green!)

At the top of the cemetery there is a small, locked chapel. It is surrounded by newer graves with a wide range of dates that do not match the nearly uniform look of the stones. It would appear that quite a few people were relocated to the cemetery at some point. They are all male, and I suspect that they must have been monks or otherwise associated with the Catholic church.

Finally, we come to a small monument at the rear of the newer part of the cemetery that displays a Soviet red star. The four graves housed in the monument all date from 1945 so they must be from the Second World War, possibly from the Nazis last stand in Prague during which 5,000 Czechs died. One of the buried men was a Sergei, which sounds distinctly Russian. (I have never met a Czech Sergei, probably for good reason.) This monument is also thoroughly adorned with flowers and wreaths.

I have visited the cemetery three times and there have always been people quietly tending their family plots: chatting in low tones while pulling weeds or arranging flowers. A rusty tap with an equally rusty watering can under it offers water for plants in exchange for a couple of coins. It is quite a contrast to the sterile plastic flowers baking on rows of flat stones that one finds in many treeless American cemeteries. No riding mower has ever thundered through Nebušice’s graveyard.

Some of the graves are cracking, slowly uprooted by trees, but the tilted stones seem comfortable. Behind one headstone, a pair of hot pink panties has been abandoned in haste. The dead are not lonely here.

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