Founded probably as early as the 11th century, the cemetery took on its present appearance in the 1870s, when the national memorial cemetery was established. The idea was to create a memorial cemetery for those who are credited with shaping the nation. This relates to the growing national awareness after the fall of the absolutist regime.
At present, it is one of the most significant sites associated with the history of the Czech nation, with more than 600 famous figures laid to rest here. The main feature of the cemetery is Slavín, a pantheon where the most honoured figures are buried. Many of the headstones are works of art; those of the highest value can be found in the Neo-Renaissance arcades.
Among the prominent figures buried here are: Nobel laureate in Chemistry Jaroslav Heyrovský, poets Karel Hynek Mácha, Jan Neruda, František Hrubín and Vítězslav Nezval, greatest goalscorer in football history Josef Bican, Oscar-winning director Elmar Klos, world’s leading figure in high-tech architecture Jan Kaplický, writer Božena Němcová, and the founder of experimental physiology Jan Evangelista Purkyně. There are also symbolic graves here – those of Milada Horáková, a politician executed after a show trial in the 1950s , and painter Josef Čapek, who died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.
The pantheon was built in 1893 and contains a crypt with 44 tombs. Above the central memorial is a sarcophagus with an allegorical winged statue of Genius Patriae. On the sides of the memorial are two statues – the allegory of Homeland the Mourning on the left, and Homeland the Victorious on the right. On the front side of the memorial are three plates inscribed with the names of the first fifteen figures laid to rest in Slavín. The first of them, poet Julius Zeyer, was buried here in 1901, despite his wish to be buried in the countryside of the South Bohemia region. Zeyer also authored the verses on the pedestals of the side statues. They read: The dust of her sons the mourning homeland returns to the ground. / Of their deeds joyful she speaks through the ages to the humankind. Above the name plates is the motto of Slavín: Though dead, they still speak.
Among others, the pantheon is the final resting place of the following: Emmy Destinn, a soloist at New York Metropolitan Opera; she was admired by Giacomo Puccini, Arturo Toscanini as well as Enrico Caruso.
Rafael Kubelík, a prominent Metropolitan Opera conductor, rests here with his father, a violin virtuoso. Among others are painter, decorative artist and designer Alphonse Mucha, inventor František Křižík, sculptor Josef Václav Myslbek, and poets Josef Ladislav Sládek and Jaroslav Vrchlický.
Antonín Dvořák (8th September 1841 – 1st May 1904) was – and still is – one of the best known and most frequently performed Czech composers. He first achieved success after 1875 with his Moravian Duets and Slavonic Dances. In 1890 he was appointed as director of Prague Conservatory; in 1892 he became director of a conservatory in New York. Dvořák gained acclaim as both a teacher and a conductor. He toured England a number of times, during which period he composed Stabat Mater and Symphony No. 8 (also known as “The English Symphony”). After he returned to Bohemia, he was appointed as director of Prague Conservatory in 1901. Dvořák’s finest works include nine symphonies (including the famous “New World Symphony”, which he wrote while in the US), a great number of chamber works and compositions for both voice and instruments, and eleven operas, such as The Jacobin, The Devil and Kate, and, most importantly, Rusalka. Dvořák also composed a large number of sacred works, such as Te Deum, Requiem, the St Ludmila oratorio, and Biblical Songs.
Karel Čapek (9th January 1890 – 25th December 1938) was a humanist, writer, playwright, and journalist. He is best known for his novels, plays, essays, articles, and children’s books. Among his most famous literary works are his plays The Mothe r, R.U.R., The Macropulos Affair, and The White Disease, novels War with the Newts, Krakatit and the trilogy Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life. His other notable works include Stories from a Pocket and Stories from Another Pocket. His Talks with T. G. Masaryk are based on the interviews with the first Czechoslovak president. In his works, Čapek frequently warned against the rising fascism. He also coined the term ‘robot’ – it is derived from the verb ‘robotovat’, which translates as ‘to work’.
Composer Bedřich Smetana (2nd March 1824 – 12th May 1884) wrote eight operas, the best known of which are Libuše and The Bartered Bride. His other famous compositions include the cycle My Fatherland, which consists of the symphonic poems Vyšehrad, Vltava, Šárka, From Bohemian Woods and Fields, Tábor, and Blaník. His most notable chamber work is the E minor string quartet From My Life. Smetana composed a number of his best work after he lost hearing. Towards the end of his life, he was suffering from a serious brain condition – progressive paralysis, which marks the final stages of syphilis; he died in a lunatic asylum.
The cemetery is a gallery under the open sky. It displays statues by the best sculptors of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the works of Ladislav Šaloun, who created the Jan Hus monument in Old Town Square, Josef Václav Myslbek, author of the famous equestrian statue in Wenceslas Square, and Bohumil Kafka, whose works include one of the biggest equestrian statues in the world – the Jan Žižka monument at Prague’s Vítkov. The graves of sculptors Drahoňovský and Sucharda feature their own statues.
The photo shows the Embrace of Love & Death sculpture from 1907 by Bohumil Kafka. The expressive and dynamic interpretation of the Angel of Death represents one of the milestones in Czech sepulchral art.