VILNIUS - A visit to a cemetery does not sound like much fun. Not that every trip has to be a laughing matter. It does not mean, however, that it cannot be exciting.
Cemeteries are the best way to have a quick and thorough course in a country's history without becoming absorbed in several heavy tomes on the subject. The Rasu kapines (Cemetery of Rasos) in Vilnius is an excellent place to take this journey through time and explore the olden days.
Located about a fifteen minute drive from the Vilnius center, Rasu kapines cover an area of 150 thousand square meters. Entering the gates of the cemetery feels like crossing the border of a city within a city.
The structure of this necropolis is quite similar to the one of the living people's society. The further toward the center, the more impressive the gravestones. The graves in the "suburbs" are simple and small, just like the people buried there. The central part, surrounding a cemetery chapel, is full of grand statues and mausoleums. A couple of graves even imitate the manor houses the people resting there lived in.
Since 1769 Rasu kapines has served as the biggest cemetery in Vilnius. Nowadays only those who have family graves there can be buried. The cemetery staff also helps people from all over the world to find their ancestors' graves. It is often enough for them to send a picture or a description of the burial site via e-mail.
Besides old nobility, the graveyard holds the bodies of some of the most prominent figures in Lithuanian history 's including Jonas Basanavicius, Joachim Lelewel, Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, and Anton Wiwulski, among others.
However, the most popular grave here is the one where Josef Pilsduski's heart is buried alongside his family. It is always covered with red and white flowers from Polish tourists expressing respect for their beloved marshal. During the Soviet occupation, this place was made into a football field.
However, the path, which cemetery staff humorously calls "the highway," leading to Pilsudki's grave is quite a challenge for the faint-hearted. It is only a matter of time until some of the massive crosses leaning above the path will collapse. Usually the guide points that out. Hopefully the government will start financing this landmark cemetery properly before a disaster happens.
Once luxurious and elegant, Rasu kapines now faces what could be the hardest time in its history. Crosses lying on the ground, scattered tombstones, grey statues and raucous crows make Cemetery of Rasos look like a stereotypical Hollywood horror film.
Those parts of the cemetery contrast with the renovated ones, which are more suited for a pleasant walk on a sunny day than a place to tell scary ghost stories. Speaking of which, as with most graveyards, Rasu kapines are also believed to be haunted. The staff working in the cemetery said this is nonsense, although tourists are more than eager to listen to some scary tale.
The staff is concerned about more earthy problems, such as drug addicts, who sulk around trying to grab the attention of some tourist group to guide around the cemetery hoping to earn some money for a dose. Do not be tempted by a lower price, their crowd-pleasing stories are completely invented.
In the end it seems the city of the dead is just like the city of the living.