If you are doing a tour of the Jewish areas of Prague, the Old Cemetery is a good place to finish. It is a celebration of life, since all of the key characters in the story are buried here.
The Cemetery stands next to the Pinkas Synagogue, was first consecrated in the 15th Century, and was closed to burials in 1787, when the community was granted land for a new cemetery.
Many visitors come to the Cemetery and notice how small it is, and how close together the headstones are. The area for the entire Jewish population of the town was fixed, and therefore the Cemetery also had to occupy a fixed area of land. For this reason, the dead are buried very close together. Even with this tactic, the graveyard still filled up, so in many places, earth was poured over the graves, and a new layer of graves consecrated. In some places, the bodies are 12 deep. This is why the area is in places significantly higher than street level.
The cemetery features a lot of common elements of Jewish burial grounds; for example there are no flowers placed on the graves, because flowers represent life, and only G-d can bring life into the realm of death. It is also an expression of humility, as large floral tributes left by rich families can often embarrass other families who are unable to afford that sort of thing. On the other hand, stones are placed on graves in order to show remembrance of a body being laid there. This is because traditionally Jewish graves were covered over with stones to prevent animals getting to the bodies, and because laying a stone on the grave is symbolically taking a part in the burial process, which is one of the highest good deeds a Jew can perform.
The gravestones feature many icons which describe the person buried there. These can describe the person's job, for example a pair of scissors for a tailor or a cow for a shochet (butcher), or their religious involvement in the community, for example a Cohen, a descendent of the biblical family of priests has a pair of hands forming the sign of the priestly blessing. Also some icons signify that person's name, for example a Star of David for David or a lion for Arieh or Judah. Some are also buried underneath a broken column, to signify a life snuffed out before its time.
Famous characters that are buried in the cemetery include Rabbi David Gans, the noted cleric, astronomer and colleague of Tycho Brahe, the first Jew to combine Torah study and the world of Science. He was also the first Jewish historian, with his magnum opus Zemach David, which told a history of the Jewish people in Socio-Political terms for the first time. In that book, he described another of the famous occupants of the cemetery:
"He built a shrine, a temple on a small scale
In honour and praise of the Lord in a magnificent robe
Baths and hospitals, he paved the streets with stone
In our Jewish town
And he purchased a garden for the cemetery
Built a house for the gathering of the wise
And he bestowed his grace
On tens of thousands of scholars of the Holy Writings
These are the words that Gans uses to describe one of the great architects of the Golden Age of Jewish Prague
, none other than the great benefactor, Mordechai Maisel
, the man who bought extra land in order to expand the cemetery. Maisel's contemporary and fellow architect of the Golden Age also resides here, Maharal
grave is one of the most visited, and, to this day, visitors leave messages in the cracks in the marble.
The cemetery is a celebration of life and a commemoration of death in one place, which, in a way, is a microcosm of the Jewish story in Prague.