I’ve often wondered who plans and designs cemeteries. How do they start? Does someone have a grand vision, buy a field and wait for people to come to buy their plots as and when they’re needed? And when the space runs out, what then? Buy an adjacent field and expand? In Croatia recently, we stopped by Varaždin cemetery to see the results of the make-over it received back in the early 1900s. Its keeper, Herman Haller, had a vision. His legacy lives on in what is billed as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in Europe.
Although the first burial was recorded back in 1773, wasn’t until Haller took charge that the cemetery began is metamorphis. Heavily influenced by the landscaped gardens and parks in the cities of Austria and Germany, Haller was especially taken with Schönbrunn in Vienna, itself modelled on Versailles in a style of garden architecture known as the French style. In 1905, he added to the wild chestnut and acacia already thriving in Varaždin cemetery. He planted thousands of maple, red beech, thuja, ash, and magnolia as well as myriad flowers, all to plan. As they grew, he carefully shaped them to create arbours, hidden gardens, and niches, creating the illusion that the gravestones were inset afterwards. The result is breathtaking. Not bad at all for a man who once earned his crust as a tailor.
Haller noted a common thread that weaves its way through cemeteries everywhere, be they ‘lavish city cemeteries’ or ‘humble and quiet village graveyards’ – sadness:
…the presence of death and of our own paltriness is bitterly felt …
Apart from the obvious, Haller attributed this feeling to the heavy stone statues, the wrought iron gates, the dark sepulchral decorations. His aim was to rid Varaždin cemetery of it.
Varaždin cemetery is a lovely spot, one that deserves more time that I had to give it. Had we not been heading towards Zagreb on a schedule, I’d have happily stayed longer. It’s not far across the border, though, an easy day trip which will be made all the better by some research into which of Croatia’s sculptors have their work on permanent display in there.