Riga's resting places

  • 2009-04-15
  • By Kate McIntosh

DEAD ZONE: A combined visit to Riga's Great Cemetery and Brother's Cemetery makes for a somber, but fascinating excursion.

RIGA - Death is big business at Riga's Lielie Kapi (Great Cemetery).
It's Sunday morning and the flower and wreath sellers that dot the perimeter are doing a brisk trade.
Mostly elderly mourners tend the graves of loved ones 's they replace wilted flowers, light candles and clear away debris.
Nestled among these lovingly cared for family plots can be found graves that mark the who's who of Latvia's elite.

Resting for all eternity in the cemetery grounds are famed politicians, soldiers, writers, poets, actors and aristocrats. City founder Albert of Riga and celebrated folklorist Krisjanis Barons are among those buried on the 22 hectare plot of land.
The cemetery opened following an edict from then Empress of the Russian Empire, Catherine the Great, that all burials take place in cemeteries located on town boundaries.
The measures came amid several outbreaks of the Plague, which was linked to the often crowded and inadequate burial practices in urban areas.

Founded in 1773, the Great Cemetery served as the principal burial ground for over 170 years for almost all Baltic Germans who died in the city between 1773 and 1944.
Intricately designed gravestones, complete with poetic inscriptions, tell a fascinating story of lives past.
Away from the busy stall trade, the cemetery's vast estate, which is linked by narrow forest pathways, can be explored in near solitude.


The cemetery has a tumultuous history.
Hundreds of headstones and graves were removed or destroyed by Soviet authorities following the 1945 occupation.
In 1957 the cemetery was closed for burials and in the late 1960s city authorities transformed the cemetery into a public memorial park.

Today, many of the graves remain abandoned or in neglected condition.
The Great Cemetery can easily be combined with a visit to the neighboring Bralu Kapi (Cemetery of Brothers) 's the last resting place for thousands of Latvian soldiers who died defending the country between 1915-1920 in World War I and the Latvian War of Independence.
This somber military memorial is dominated by the impressive sculpture of Mother Latvia and her dead sons, which stands sentry above rows of tiny graves.

The memorial, which was constructed in the 1920s, features nationally symbolic sculptures dedicated to the fallen heroes.
Visitors pass through the elaborate main gates, which depict a pair of dying ancient Latvian horsemen in contradictory stances.
Above the entrance are inscribed the dates 1915 (when the first burials in the cemetery were made) and 1920 (the last year of the Latvian War of Independence.
A lone path stretches to a paved terrace and the one meter high altar of eternal fire, which burns in remembrance of the dead.

Far from being morbid, the cemeteries make for an intriguing and deeply affecting historical excursion.
To visit the cemeteries take tram number 11 from Krisjanis Barona Street to the Bralu kapi stop.