Houses of the Dead: A Cemetery Tour of Riga
The history of Riga is made of the thousands who have lived here—who have done business in its markets, have lived in its domiciles and have ridden along its trees on tram or trap. The majority of them now reside underneath the city. One way to find out more about its past, then, is to visit a cemetery, where rich and poor commune under the soil. Here are three that warrant a visit.
The Great Cemetery
The Great Cemetery is among the oldest of the major burial sites in Riga. It opened in 1773, after fears of plague led Empress Catherine the Great to forbid burials in urban churchyards. Instead, purpose-build cemeteries were to provide a wide cross-section of society a place to rest for eternity.
This cemetery has a special significance for its Baltic German interred. Indeed, the gravestones that remain constitute a medley of languages—German, Russian and Latvian. Sadly, the Soviets vandalised much of this area during the occupation and so the remaining graves are sparsely spread.
Forest Cemetery and Raiņa Cemetery
North of the Great Cemetery towards Mežaparks lies a yet greater necropolis. The Forest Cemetery was founded in 1913, after a petition by Baltic Germans who argued that the city’s burial sites were at capacity. It lies alongside the Raiņa cemetery, which is home to many sculptures by Latvia’s most esteemed artists.
Riga Brethren Cemetery
Perhaps the most visually striking of all Riga’s cemeteries is this military burial site, on which construction began during World War One. As the German front encroached ever nearer to Riga, and fatalities stacked up, the government decided to construct a fitting monument.
The stonework of Kārlis Zāle features prominently throughout the national monument, influenced by the aesthetics of modernism. You can also see the eternal flame burning in the centre of the site.
A Short Ride Away
All three of these cemeteries can be easily reached in less than half an hour from the city centre on Tram No. 11. They’re close together, so make a perfect destination for a trip out of the hustle and bustle.
Luke is a history and languages student interning at Liden & Denz, Riga.
Photo credit to author.