Unusual Polish Cemeteries
full-width, Cmentarz w Sejnach, fot. Andrzej Sidor/Forum, top, cmentarz-forumm.jpg
We normally visit cemeteries to bury our nearest and dearest, but many notable graveyards in Poland also possess exceptional atmosphere, history and architecture.
Powązkowski Cemetery, Warsaw
The oldest cemetery in the capital opened in 1790, covering an area of two hectares, which has since grown to 44. Two years later, Dominik Merlini (court architect to King August III and Stanisław August Poniatowski, and creator of both the Palace on the Water in Warsaw’s Łazienki Park and the Królikarnia Palace) designed the Church of St Charles Borromeo, built on one side of the cemetery. Its decorated white towers still overlook the area today.
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Around a million people lie buried in Powązkowski Cemetery. Its most famous section is the Avenue of the Heroes, the final resting place of many distinguished Polish historical, cultural and scientific figures. There are centuries-old tombs, for example those of Hugo Kołłątaj and soldiers from the time of the Kościuszko Uprising, as well as numerous graves of more recently deceased artistic celebrities, including Julia Hartwig and Wojciech Młynarski.
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Rakowicki Cemetery, Kraków
As in Powązkowski, Rakowicki Cemetery also has a section with graves of prominent Polish historical figures. Considering the vital position occupied by Kraków on the artistic map of the country, many names from the art world are buried there, including Helena Modrzejewska, Tadeusz Kantor, Piotr Skrzynecki, Marek Grechuta and Wisława Szymborska. Among the older graves, one can find headstones designed by illustrious Polish sculptors, such as Xawery Dunikowski, Wacław Krzyżanowski, Franciszek Mączyński and Bronisław Chromy.
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Central Cemetery, Szczecin
The Central Cemetery in Szczecin was created in 1900. Its initial design was by Wilhelm Meyer-Schwartau, but the final layout was arranged by Georg Hannig more than a decade later. It is famous for being Europe’s third-largest necropolis, although its surface area is not its most noteworthy feature. The Szczecin cemetery is an extensive park complex with pavilions in a range of architectural styles amid old trees and greenery. One enters the necropolis through a Neo-Romanesque gate, and the cemetery chapel is in a similar style. Amongst the tombs, one can easily find numerous valuable historic and artistic mausoleums and sculptures. In 2007, the cemetery acquired a lapidarium – a geometrical sculpture and park complex, once again designed by Georg Hannig, which assembles many fragments of old architecture and grave monuments which have been lost.
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Old Cemetery, Łódź
Built in 1855, this mixed-denomination cemetery perfectly reflects the formerly multiple cultures of Łódź. To this day, it contains Catholic, Evangelist and Orthodox graveyards. Buried here are famous 19th-century Łódź industrialists, people who aided the city’s development, social activists, lawyers, doctors and cultural figures.
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More than 200 of the cemetery’s headstones are listed monuments, and many of them are fine examples of sculpture and small-scale architecture. The cemetery’s grandest monument is the Karol Scheibler mausoleum, erected in 1888 in the form of an immense, neo-Gothic chapel designed by Edward Lilpop and Józef Dziekoński.
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Cemetery of the Heroes on Pęksa’s Brzyzek, Zakopane
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Cemetery of Merit at Pęksowy Brzyzek in Zakopane, photo: Michał Wozniak / East News
This cemetery was founded in 1848 by Jan Pęksa and is the oldest in the capital of Podhale. It takes its name from its benefactor’s surname and its location: in the highland dialect, ‘brzyzek’ means a precipice above a stream.
The site is unique thanks to its picturesque setting and numerous examples of folk art (antique wooden crosses and sculptures). The cemetery also contains several sculptures by Władysław Hasior.
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The Cemetery of the Heroes on Pęksa’s Brzyzek is also exceptional for the people buried there – names important not only to Zakopane, but to Polish culture and science in general. They include Tytus Chałubiński, Sabała, Stanisław Witkiewicz, his son Witkacy, Kornel Makuszyński, Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer, Karol Stryjeński and Antoni Kenar.
Old Jewish Cemetery, Wrocław
Jewish cemeteries in Poland were forgotten and neglected for many decades. Fortunately, in recent years, some of them have been tidied up and are now not only final resting places of the dead, but also precious monuments. One of the most beautiful is the Old Jewish Cemetery in Wrocław, which dates back to the latter half of the 19th century. Since affluent Jewish people (including some living outside Poland’s current borders) chose to be buried in this cemetery, many impressive monumental, decorative mausoleums and gravestones were erected. One can even find small-scale examples of Moorish and Egyptian architecture. The Old Jewish Cemetery, now a subsidiary of the City Museum of Wrocław, covers 4.6 hectares and contains around 12,000 headstones.
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Mennonite Cemetery, Sosnówka
In the late 16th century, the Mennonites – followers of a branch of Protestantism who had previously lived in the Netherlands – were forced to flee persecution in their country. Some settled in formerly tolerant Poland, particularly the Lower Vistula Valley. Sosnówka in the Grudziądz district has one of the few remaining Mennonite cemeteries in Poland. It probably came into use around 1690, and some remnants of 17th-century gravestones have survived. A sign by the cemetery gate lists its most noteworthy historical relics:
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The original layout is clearly visible, as are numerous headstones of outstanding artistic value (the oldest dating from 1691, 1836, and 1861) and a relic of the main gate.
Muslim Cemetery, Kruszyniany
Over 600 years ago, a Muslim minority inhabited lands belonging to Poland. From the latter half of the 17th century onwards, the Tatar community had its own cemetery in Kruszyniany. Its oldest surviving gravestone dates from 1699. Interestingly, the site continues to be used for Muslim burials. In one section, next to an 18th-century wooden mosque, headstones over 300 years old stand alongside completely modern ones.
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Lipowa Street Cemetery, Lublin
The history of the Lipowa Street Cemetery in Lublin dates back to 1794. From the outset, it always contained a range of nations and religions, and there are still Catholic, Evangelist and Orthodox gravestones today. From a historical point of view, the latter section of the cemetery is particularly valuable. Apart from more than 500 ancient headstones, there is also the Church of the Holy Maidens Bearing Fragrances, built in the early 20th century – a two-storey, five-domed brick chapel in the Russian-Byzantine style that, despite its fairly small size, boasts all the major elements of Orthodox architecture.
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Lemko Cemetery, Świerzowa Ruska
Świerzowa Ruska in the Low Beskids was a Lemko village, probably founded in the late 16th century. In the early 20th century, the village numbered almost 500 residents and had its own school and Orthodox church – but the villagers were resettled in 1947, and the abandoned buildings fell into disrepair. The former village later became part of Magurski National Park and was inaccessible for many years, even to tourists. But in 2015, paths were created, along with an eight-stop educational trail that allows one to discover the history of the Lemkos who lived there and visit the local cemetery, which has been preserved to some extent. Today, 20 gravestones (some from the 19th century), wooden crosses and sculptures are all that remain of the people who inhabited this area for several hundred years.
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Southern Cemetery, Antoninów, near Piaseczno
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Construction of the South Cemetery, Antoninów, Piaseczno commune, 1999, photo: Sławomir Kamiński / AG
Although most of Poland’s cemeteries were created many years ago, new ones are also springing up. These include the Southern Cemetery in Antoninów, opened in the late 1990s on the southern outskirts of Warsaw. It is a fascinating example of a municipal facility whose function required an unusual form. A team of architects, headed by Piotr Szaroszyk, designed a complex (ceremonial halls, a funeral chapel, administrative buildings, etc.) that blends into the landscape and is linked by rows of graves and catacombs. Its simple, contemporary architectural design has resulted in a typically pensive, peaceful atmosphere. The architects described their concept as:
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An urban cemetery composition intended to preserve and perpetuate the site’s existing Mazovian greenfield landscape. Fields and orchards have been transformed into plots of tombs, and field edges into avenues. All the undamaged trees and bushes were kept.
żydowska sztuka sakralna
Originally written in Polish by Anna Cymer, Oct 2018, translated by Mark Bence, Oct 2020