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Riga’s burial sites: Heart of Stone

By Editor. 07.10.2009

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  While a visit to a cemetery may seem like a strange way to kill time, Riga’s burial sites are cultural monuments that deserve a look. And their natural landscapes are great places to find some peace of mind amidst the hectic rush of city life.

 

For many Westerners cemeteries are associated with horror movie images of ghouls rising from the graves. Latvians, however, take a different approach to dealing with death.

Rather than being places to fear, in Latvia graveyards are open spaces which people visit on a regular basis. This open attitude combined with the artistry and imagination put into creating memorials and tombstones make them important cultural sites and attractive places to visit. A trip to the most prominent cemeteries in Riga, the adjoining Bralu kapi and Meza kapi, can be an interesting and soothing experience.

 The last post

One reason for this sense of familiarity with the other side may be the country’s tragic history. Down the centuries, plagues, famines and of course wars have occurred on a regular basis, bringing the grim reaper in tow.

Possibly the worst conflict of all was World War I, a Europe-wide tragedy that affected Latvia particularly badly. The front line ran through the middle of the country, tens of thousands were killed or driven from their homes, and the fighting continued until 1920 when various foreign armies were finally evicted - a full two years longer than on the Western front.It is therefore understandable that the main monument to the fallen in Riga is on an epic scale. Bralu kapi (the Brother’s Cemetery) is a melancholic site about 5 km north of the city which originated during the war itself.

Latvia went to war in 1914 as part of the Czarist Empire, and a series of disastrous defeats at the hands of the Germans saw the front line reach the outskirts of Riga. In the summer of 1915 the Russian authorities gave permission for Latvian troops to be organized into their own units for front line duty, following appeals from members of the Latvian intelligentsia that this would improve the morale and effectiveness of these soldiers. The Latvian Rifle Regiments eventually numbered some 50,000 men and became renowned for their fighting skills; they also suffered thousands of casualties, and some of the dead from battles near Riga in October 1915 were interred at the site of Bralu kapi.

The graves were originally set out in an unsystematic way, but while the war was still raging the landscape architect Andrejs Zeidaks developed the first plans to turn the area into a memorial. After Latvia won its independence, a government committee set up to continue the work approved a design by the sculptor Karlis Zale, who later also designed the Freedom Monument in the center of the capital, and by the late 1920s it had taken on the shape we see today.

Besides being a somber burial ground, Bralu kapi is a fine synthesis of modernist sculpture, architecture and landscaping that has influenced the design of numerous cemeteries abroad. The stone used in the design is tufa quarried at Allazi, east of Riga, and the memorial is conceptually divided into three stages. The first is the approach down a long avenue of linden trees, culminating in looming entry gates to the main area. Inside is a raised terrace with an eternal flame, then below is the third stage, with a large figure of Mother Latvia with sculptures of grieving warriors looking over the expanse of gravestones. Around 1,800 soldiers have their final resting place here.

 Ghost town

Adjacent to Bralu kapi is the largest public cemetery in Riga, Mezu kapi (the Forest Cemetery). Founded before World War I, it is similar in appearance to other, smaller burial sites across Latvia, and has a similar atmosphere. Perhaps the first thing that hits you on arriving near the place is an almost jovial atmosphere. Dozens of stalls sell wreathes and flowers, following the Latvian custom that only even numbered bunches should be put on graves (in the opposite scenario, do NOT give two, four or six roses to a girl you like…) On weekends there is quite a crowd of people stocking up on buds to brighten up their family plots; elderly people armed with rakes predominate, but younger folks can also be found amidst the throng.

Walking down the long, tree-lined paths, notice that Christian imagery is used relatively little. There are no plain crosses, rather stones sculpted into individual shapes and in a variety of colors predominate. Particularly good examples of stonework are the monuments to pre war pilots, all variations on the theme of wings. Meza kapi is also the final resting place for many prominent Latvians, and the grave to Janis Cakste, Latvia’s first president, was a focal point for people to express their dissent to the Soviet occupation. KGB agents watching the area did not prevent many people from putting flowers here on dates commemorating the first independent Republic of Latvia.

This hum of activity around graveyards is an expression of Latvian beliefs in the afterlife. Rather than a dualistic heaven and hell, traditional pagan mythology holds that the soul divides after death, and part of it remains near the grave as long as the deceased’s loved one continue remembering them. These spirits, called veli in Latvian, are believed to be move around in the late fall, making this an especially important time for the living to pay a visit.

In a similar vein, All Souls Day, which falls on Sunday November 21 this year, is a nominally Christian event that nevertheless is deeply in line with these ancient beliefs. Across Latvia people place candles on the graves of their loved ones, creating a hauntingly beautiful spectacle. And there are few places to better see it than Meza kapi, where a thousand tiny flames flicker against the stone monuments in the autumnal gloom.

 

To get to the cemetery, take tram no. 11 from Kr. Barona Street to the “Bralu kapi” stop. The trip takes around 20 minutes.

 

W.J.T. 10.10.2009 13:46

Wow- exotic :D

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