Vilnius’ beautiful cemeteries

more than a year ago
Rasos Cemetery, photo by Jan Mehlich / GFDL
A trip to a cemetery may seem like a grim way to spend a couple of hours exploring the character of Lithuania, but Vilnius’ burial sites are cultural monuments that give intriguing insights into the country’s history and the array of nationalities, languages and beliefs represented here. Their natural landscapes and serene locations also make them beautiful places to escape the city.
Some people might be forgiven for thinking cemeteries and churchyards are the last places you’d consider for a stroll when visiting a foreign land. They may be more easily associated with horror-movie images of zombies and ghouls, ghosts and vampires forcing their way out of the earth.
But Lithuanians have always had a different approach to dealing with the dead. Wulfstan, a ninth-century traveller from Germany, wrote about a strange custom of the people on the Baltic’s eastern shores who kept their dead frozen for months, feasting and playing, before eventually burning them. This was considered to be the most honourable farewell they could give.
For many centuries, Lithuanians believed that the soul leaves the body in two breaths, from the throat and from the chest, and all of the windows and doors were opened so that the souls – and all the dead relatives’ souls who had come to meet them – could fly out freely. No one was allowed to sleep at this crucial time, even babies, animals and bees, as their souls could be swept along.
The recently passed would be dressed in their finest clothes or in special shrouds, and sending them off was like a festival, with decorations, plentiful food and drink, songs and prayers. Before taking them to the cemetery, the bodies would be placed on boards in the best room in the house with their feet facing the door, for three days or more. There was also the ritual drinking of beer to honour the earth goddess Žemyna.
The inside of the coffin, the dead relative’s new home, was lined with white cloth and sacred herbs were placed within. Right up until the 20th century, tools and other items were also put inside as necessities for the afterlife.
Also until quite recently, white was the colour of mourning and suffering, not black. Women would wear white kerchiefs, as in centuries past the dead would be dressed in white and white was the colour of death.
Some of the most serene and soothing places in Vilnius are the city’s cemeteries (kapinės). Here are some suggestions.
Deceptively isolated Rasos kapinės can be reached by strolling from the Old Town up Subačiaus and then Rasų Street. This waving terrain of crosses contains the graves of famous locals like Jonas Basanavičius, linguist and founder of the first Lithuanian-language newspaper Aušra. He lies close to the chapel, while uphill from the main entrance lies the tombstone of revered, mystical painter and composer M K Čiurlionis.
Next to entrance is a more controversial site, a plot for Polish leader Józef Piłsudski, the man responsible for annexing the Vilnius region to Poland in 1920. Born in the village of Zalavas, northeast of Vilnius, he was buried in Krakow, but his heart was cut out according to his wishes and buried in Vilnius, here in this tomb, in 1935.
Rasų Cemetery is beautiful at all times of the year but especially in the leafy autumn and at Vėlinės on November 1-2, when countless candles flicker across the hillside by night. It has also long been a place of spiritual meaning during troubled times, for example when a group of daring Lithuanians gathered here in October 1956 in support of the Hungarian anti-Soviet uprising.
The biggest cemetery in central Vilnius is Antakalnio kapinės, which can be reached by bearing right from Antakalnio onto L Sapiegos Street, following it round and turning right on Kuosų. Elegantly carved headstones cover the rolling, tree-shrouded landscape, the crosses and tombs inscribed in Lithuanian, Russian and Polish.
Following the paved path, you’ll eventually see a series of identical stone crosses to the left. They are dedicated to Polish soldiers killed during World War I – as bloody and tragic a conflict in the east as it was in the west. Taking paths to the right will take you to broadly chiselled Soviet-era statues in the Socialist Realist style to poets and political leaders who were largely faithful to the party.
Cut into a hill at the heart of the cemetery is a sweeping, semi-circular memorial to the 14 people who died defending the TV Tower and Parliament building in January 1991.
Perched on a high bank above the bubbling River Vilnia at the far end of the Užupis suburb is tranquil Bernardinų kapinės, tightly packed with lopsided metal crosses and tiny, uneven plots. Founded in 1810, this quiet retreat holds the final resting places of university professors, painters and other cultural figures.
Eerie and cut off from the rest of the city, find it off Polocko Street, at the end of a leafy little lane. Over the long years, trees have gently elbowed their way between the tombs, making them even more higgledy-piggledy, while the tree bark has slowly spilled through railings that fence off the graves. A lot tidier than it was in the 1990s, it has an unmatched atmosphere of calm and stillness.
Many languages including Yiddish, Russian, Lithuanian, Polish and English, as well as intriguing and faded black-and-white photos, adorn the graves at the Žydų kapinės (Jewish Cemetery) north of the city centre. It was initially opened shortly before the chaos of World War II, but after the war the Soviets destroyed two much older Jewish cemeteries in the city and transferred just a handful of graves and monuments of famous people to this new site.
Paved pathways cross and snake through this thickly wooded area, making it as evocative as any other cemetery in Vilnius. Local Jewish people tend to some of the plots, but other graves appear to have been forgotten for many years. The grave of the Vilna Gaon, the revered 18th-century Talmudist and kabbalist, attracts many visitors who leave notes and prayers by the graveside.
To the left of the cemetery entrance is a small office where, if it’s open, maps of the grounds can be obtained. To get to the Žydų kapinės, hop on bus 43 from the Green Bridge, bus 73 from the Juozo Tumo-Vaižganto stop near Lukiškės Square, or call a taxi.
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