As with many architectural challenges in places where space is at a premium, in Prague’s Old Jewish Cemetery, the only way to build was up.
Question: Where in the world might the guy buried beneath you get the headstone above you?
Answer: The Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague
For roughly 350 years, the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague was the final resting place for the city’s Jews. From the first headstone, dated 1439, to the final one in 1787, its population continually grew but its footage rarely did. After a few minimal expansions, the city said no more. That posed a problem: where were new arrivals to go?
The answer was pragmatic: stacked like pancakes. Digging up old graves to replace the dead was out of the question, so the newly deceased were simply buried atop their predecessors. This worked for a while, with bodies layered seven or eight deep. But eventually, even that wasn’t enough, and the level of the earth itself had to be raised. If more soil was brought in and heaped atop old burials, more could be buried. The result was the raising of the cemetery higher than street level and the building of a retaining wall to shore up the new earth.
The record for biggest stack is a dozen deep, which itself created a new issue: how to mark the graves? In some cases, each new person’s headstone was simply established atop its predecessor, so that the tomb was marked with the most recent arrival. But the relatives of some more prominent dead insisted that their headstones never be covered, so one plot might have several markers jockeying for attention, while others might bear only an inscription honoring the bigwig several layers down. A total of 12,000 headstones now mark the burials of 100,000 Jews.
At the end of the 18th century when Emperor Josef banned burials within city limits—calling them unhygienic—it was the end of the road for the Old Cemetery. In a way, that was a good thing: had the trend kept going, the graves might have ended up taller than the mourners coming to pay respects.
How to Read a Headstone at The Old Jewish Cemetery
Since last names were typically not used and the text of the epitaphs was traditionally Hebrew verses, carvers used symbology on headstones to tell you about the deceased. Here are a few symbols you might spot:
- A Magen David (six-pointed star): Jewish
- Blessing hands: Cohen family, descended from temple priests
- Goose: Gans family
- Mouse: Maisel family
- Jug and bowl: Descendent of Levites, who served in the temple
- Wine grapes: Fertility and prosperity
- Crown: Good reputation
- Book: Cantor (singer and prayer leader)
- Books on a shelf: Rabbi
- Quill: Writer
- Harp or Violin: Musician (other than Cantor)
- Lancet: Doctor
- Scissors: Tailor
- Calf: Butcher
- Lion, Deer, Bear, or Wolf: Whoever lies beneath is male
- Bird or Rose: Whoever lies beneath is female
- Four-sided tomb with gable roof: Prominent in the community
- Dragon: The only one in the whole cemetery honors Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, creator of the Golem legend
Visit the Old Cemetery and discover centuries of history when you join Grand Circle Cruise Line’s Romantic Blue Danube: Budapest to Prague River Cruise.