You know how when you are living in a city, there is that one place you’re always meaning to visit, but never do, because, well you live in the city, and you can visit said place at any time. It’s always at the top of your list: when you blog, when reading other blogs, when you pitch an article, when you go through your photos and remember the effort you took to visit a similar space in another city. You’re always telling yourself you’ll go soon. You must.
After almost four years in Zagreb I finally crossed out my ‘that one place’ from the list. For over a year I live about ten minutes from Zagreb’s Mirogoj Cemetery, but didn’t manage a visit. On bright summer days, the kind that are perfect, I’d think of the cemetery park, I’d read it’s considered as one of the most beautiful in Europe, and make plans of definitely visiting soon. Once or twice, I almost set out, but then I didn’t.
So it’s fitting, in a Murphy’s Law kind of way, that when I finally reach the cemetery gates, a fifteen minute cab ride from my current address, I am gloveless on an unusually icy day. “Are you going for a funeral?” the cabbie asks as we settle the fare. It feels wrong to say, “No, I’m just visiting.” Outside a funeral procession is filtering out; the winding street gets clogged in minutes with bumper to bumper traffic.
There’s something about Mirogoj. It could have been cold and gloomy with its imposing walls rising right up to the grey clouds. But the pale green domes add pops of colour to the dull day, and the dark crawling vines along the walls and neatly around the gate lend the massive structure a touch of softness. Inside, there’s room for intricate cupolas, archways, pavilions, frescos, tree-lined avenues, and art amidst memories and prayer.
The cemetery complex dates back to 1876 and has grown into a massive property – 70 hectors. Despite the winter, it still holds the green. There aren’t many visitors around at the moment, just some family members and a few cemetery workers. I only recognize a few names, mostly from street signs across the city, but the flowers (some fresh, some faux), coloured candles, sculptures, and memorials all tell stories that speak as much of lives lived as of loved ones lost. There’s history, love, loss and celebration here.
There are approximately 60 thousand graves, which includes family graves, and about 350 000 people resting at Mirogoj. Not only does it hold enough people to fill a township, the population is just as diverse. This is one of the few, if not the only, cemeteries open to multiple denominations of faith – not just encompassing Christianity but including Judaism and Islam.
Every now and then I catch a glimpse of well adjusted multi-cultural relationships – a Muslim gravestone, with Arabic script, supports a wooden cross laid by the Catholic wife; both the cross and the stone bear the same message. There are a number of nationalities here too. Many are world war veterans; others are from much before. There are Croats, Italians, Hungarians, French. There’s Croatian, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic. There are celebrities, martyrs, commoners, gangsters.
My visit is close on the heels of All Saints Day, so the sheen is expected, but the lack of lost gravestones and forgotten families is surprising. As it turns out the cemetery has a firm (and I guess effective) maintenance policy. Families that don’t tend to the graves are issued warnings, and if they still don’t comply, the coffins are shifted to other cemeteries in the city, opening up space in Zagreb’s most prestigious resting place.
A plot here is a big deal, not to mention expensive. There is a waiting list. Some influential families have booked plots -these areas are usually marked by plain marble or granite stones. The lack of engravings gives it an eerie effect. There’s also an entire row owned by the city and saved for individuals who serve the city and do it proud. Right now it’s a green patch and can be mistaken for a park. A look over the hedges though displays an endless horizon of gravestones.
The cemetery park is an open plan history textbook, each avenue takes you through an era of local history – as part of different empires, battalions fighting in the world wars, as part of Yugoslavia, through several civil unrests – and all avenues eventually lead to the Wall of Pain and the creation of an Independent state. The large granite structure, a memorial to honour citizens who died during the war of independence, stands away from the other clusters and memorials at one edge of the park. A strong flame burns even in the face of a stubborn wind against the shiny black monument with delicate gold engravings; the bright burnt orange dances wildly.