A brief introduction to cemetery 'life' in less frequented areas of the city
Apart from what’s noted in the church calendar (and in the case of Hungary the majority of churchgoers are Catholic) and with official bank holidays, memorial parks tend to be overlooked. It doesn’t matter how close in proximity and apparency they really are. Over the years and long before writing this tricky, delicate article, I visited some of these locales in the capital.
With headstone inscriptions often come crosses, flowers, candles and wreaths. What is revealing here is the regular use of locally produced forms of funeral art, such as the touching, embroidered “red, white and green” ribbons symbolising the Hungarian flag. This allows the spirit of patriotism of the late individual to “fly” beyond the grave.
Then there are the olde worlde, carved boat-shaped wooden structures that are more apparent eastwards, such as in Transylvania. Nearer at hand, there is a fine display of earthy artworks in the Új Köztemető/New Public Cemetery, the largest in Budapest and one of the largest in Europe, at Kozma utca in District X.
Within the city centre perimeter is the capital’s better-known Kerepesi cemetery. This is in District VIII, Józsefváros, on Fiumei Road, near Keleti train station, and opened its gates in 1849, within the same time frame as the Hungarian Revolution, led by Kossuth Lajos, one year before. All traces of Hungarian history since this proud period are to be found at this enlightening 60-hectare arboretum with its gainly parkland scenery.
The highly impressive Kossuth mausoleum is the main feature and Hungary’s largest grave memorial. In addition, there are the equally grandiose Deák and Batthyány Mausoleums. Further along with the Hungarian elite is esteemed actress Blaha Lujza, world-famous artist Munkácsy Mihály, film director Miklós Jancső… the list goes on.
These are followed by various recent-time politicians, such as communist “soft” dictator János Kádár, to name one. All come together regardless of “place” or privilege beforehand as “one” with “the people” buried among them. Not only is the Kerepesi a treasure trove for historians and sculptures, it serves as a landmark of great national importance.
Many of these headstones are excelling works of art. Some have been recently restored. The depth and detail of some of these life-like sculptures are of pure outstanding craftsmanship in its finest elaborate form, such as the realistic lion “resting” upon the grave of Antal Vetter, a general in the Hungarian army, which was inaugurated in 1882.
The Kerepesi hosts a splendour of columns and arcades, as well as a 1956 Uprising memorial. In contrast is a Soviet Labour Movement Pantheon. At the cemetery entrance there is a reception desk with maps and information, as well as an honourable Kerepesi “Piety” museum that is also worth a visit.
To make a comparison, the renowned Kerepesi is similar in ambience to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but without the crowds. This latter is partly due to its disputed “guest”, the late music legend Jim Morrison, 1943-1971, and his mass following, alongside many other celebrated names. This juncture has become a popular cultural attraction with more than three million visitors each year, making it the most visited memorial park in the world. (Tip: To find Jim, follow the trail of marijuana.)
Directly behind the Kerepesi, and which requires a significant walk around the walled perimeter, is a small, five-hectare but equally elaborate Jewish cemetery on Salgőtarjáni utca. The majority of its buried relate to the Budapest ghetto atrocities. Unfortunately, after 1950 this unruffled cemetery became abandoned and swamped by trees and vegetation that damaged much of the elegant marble- and granite-structured heritage pieces. It was not until as late as 2002 that this bereft enclosure was eventually given a protection order.
Finally, in 2016, this cemetery was put under the administration of the National Heritage Institute. It is most assuring to see maintenance work is now taking place after decades of neglect, and there will be a renewal of this illustrious and historical resting place.
Journey on eastwards beyond the suburbs to the splendid 80-hectare Israeli Cemetery, on Kozma utca, District X, with a very subdued atmosphere. It’s easy to find with its imposing, elaborate all-over whitewashed and domed chapel tops that stand before the car park and entrance while approaching. This cemetery opened in 1891 and still serves the Jewish community today.
There is a poignant memorial laid out in an arcade form that pays testimony to the many Jews from this region who perished in Nazi death camps. These impinging “walls of tributes” bear the inscriptions of those “gone”’ by the thousands. Those who are fortunate to be recorded are finally immortalised in stoneware, for all to see in generations to come.
This remarkable place is particularly known for the variety of artistically irregular burial chambers and mausoleums. They are often set in stand-outish and luxuriant Art Nouveau styles. Many of the tops of Jewish headstones are traditionally lined with loose, symbolic pebbles. Finally, the artistic Israeli Cemetery with its immense stillness has become more of a feature in recent Budapest travel guides.
As this intriguing timepiece begins to reawaken from its regretfully long decline, one can easily sense, both at this shrine and at others in the city sphere, a vibrant but troubled past. Today there are still many stones that remain loose and broken, dislodged and abandoned by general accident over the years. And sometimes buried beneath the shrubbery but hopefully ready to resurface once again.
Like many other ancient, historical cemeteries in Central Europe post-1989, their value wasn’t recognised until recent times when heavy-duty restoration work finally came in. But to maintain them to their original standard still requires much time, effort and patience. It’s far from over. Volunteers are often needed, as noted when I last visited the Kozma cemetery. To get involved, click on www.budapestjewishcemetery.com. It would be fascinating to help out.
Literally next-door on the same trail is the Új Köztemető/New Public Cemetery. This Christian cemetery is the largest in the city with a square area of about two kilometres. It has expanded five times since opening in 1886. The entrance and main building has a 26-metre-high bell tower that is clearly seen when approaching. In addition to the many local people, the world war memorials, tall trees and wide avenues, this cemetery is distinctly famous for “Plot 301”. This is a real hike to get to as it is directly at the other end from the main entrance.
This is where Nagy Imre, Prime Minister of Hungary during the 1956 Uprising, was buried anonymously alongside many other revolutionaries after being executed by the Soviets. They were disinterred and given a state funeral with full honours in 1989. To find out more, see www.301.nori.gov.hu
The Új Köztemető, like many others, gets very busy on All Saints Day, the last weekend of October. On this and other national holidays, hordes of people bring flowers, light candles and pay homage to late loved ones. Or at least one hopes this is the case, regardless of family matters still left unresolved with those in their coffin. Such is the case with me and my grandmother, who died many years ago but still confounds me with many past issues each and every day.
Final attention goes to the equally impressionable Farkasréti Cemetery, a fine and elaborate sanctuary within the peaceful climes of the Buda Hills. The atmosphere is similar to the Kerepesi but with greater views of the city and certainly worth a visit.
Although cemeteries offer a very specialised sight-seeing that few people undertake, they give a recap of local legends, general history and very fine artistry, such as is usually found only in museums. These intriguing outings are equally as insightful. Search harder and there are various lesser known cemeteries in the suburbs, some no longer in use and rarely visited.
How to conclude this matter? General restoration work is needed on many of the headstones and shrines to clear greenery and dust, to restore and identify them. A documented account of all those resting should be made fully complete, accessible to one and all. Otherwise some things really will be lost forever.