CAPITAL CHRONICLE Pt.4. The curious case of the Great Cemetery in Riga.

What has become one of the most desirable places for a stroll, leisure ride, or run in Central Riga, once was a purposefully degraded, denounced, and occasionally looted area. Despite hard times, the Great Cemetery is still a marvelous location, appealing to those in love with history, nature, physical activities, and, as proven lately, impressive social activism. Here is a visual story of the place by CAPITAL R and text by one of its most important guardians, Rita.

Cemeteries are often set out as heterotopias – simultaneously beautiful and meditative, co-created environments by people and nature that, at the same time, have a clear message of decay and oblivion. In the case of Lielie kapi memorial park, there is a particularly tragic overtone. This utmost impressive and massive depositary of art, architecture, crafts, horticultural, and botanic designs that patchwork this English style cemetery-park setting - that all had been brutally wounded and practically destroyed for more than 50 years.

Here is its story from my perspective on how this could happen and what we have done in order to restore this heterotopia back in order.


Before the story of the Great Cemetery became a success, its concept, as imposed by the educated, enlightened, and sometimes unpopular elite and rulers, was a great social shock in Europe. Back in the day, urban folks were horrified by the idea of their beloved deceased to be buried in some outskirts - far from the sacred grounds of churches. Even the reeking air and ugly look of the crypts below sacral spaces in towns was often not an argument. Municipal electors were literally facing a stinky problem of churchyard burials and regular waves of the plague, while fearing to trigger social rage.

Meanwhile, throughout the 18th century, all Baltic lands were incorporated in the Russian Empire. Riga was concurred in 1710, Livonia overtaken in 1773, and Kurland incorporated in 1795. By then, the burial reform became a far less scandalous process especially when its decree, issued by the Empress Catherine the Great herself, came as a certain relief. Deus ex machina solved the problem.

The document was signed at the Senate in St. Petersburg in 1772, arrived in Riga in 1773, and its management allocated the new cemetery grounds outside city walls the same year. It was the first burial ground under Riga's jurisdiction, which was divided under Lutheran and Reformate parishes. That year, already the very first burial took place in the necropolis of the new world.

Riga was among the champions in Europe for a reason. During the second half of the 18th century, the highly pragmatic and mostly German patricians were still enjoying their liberties of Protestantism, while finding ways to co-operate with the German-born Empress. It allowed being more mobile in various urban reforms.

The initial idea of the Great Cemetery was truly practical: to replace overcrowded, unhygienic, and decaying urban church graveyards. However, in the context of the Age of Enlightenment and, even more, the upcoming Romanticism, a new meaning of burial grounds as complex and aesthetically pleasant locations was obtained.


A brand new period in the existence of the Great Cemetery was marked by the landscape planner Johannes Cigra who redesigned its initial grounds, sand dunes encircled by black wooden walls, completely. Starting from 1822, Lielie Kapi also became a purposely planned English park cemetery. It also contributed to the modern idea of feeding the nature with the mortal shell of human remains and turning decay into paradisiacal garden. 

The Great Cemetery was the largest funerary location in Riga from the late 18th to mid 20th century, seeing its heyday in between. It fully represented a pure example of a reformed cemetery with pronounced Nordic protestant aesthetics in the city, where entrepreneurship, arts, crafts, ideas, and science were flourishing. Positive economic shifts allowed the middle and lower classes to join patricians in beautifying the graves of their deceased.

The aesthetics of death emphasized life lived with purpose, work, and achievement. People were going to the cemetery not just to visit the lovely bones, they came for a walk, to meet each other, enjoy observing beautiful spots and objects. The Great Cemetery became a popular Sunday pass-timer.

Eventually, it was truly educational – to learn about the forefathers of Riga, guilds and guards, patricians, artists, craftsman, and scientists. And here they are – too many to mention – just hundreds and hundreds:
  • first publisher of Immanuel Kant’s " Critique of Practical Reason", Johann Friedrich Hartknoch,
  • architects Christoph Haberland, Heinrich Scheel, Johann Daniel Felsko, and Vilhelm Bockslaf,
  • most legendary city mayor George Armitstead,
  • sculptor and entrepreneur August Folz,
  • fathers of the resurrection of Latvian identity, Krišjānis Valdemārs, Andrejs Pumpurs, Ernests Dinsbergs,
  • philanthropists and entrepreneurs Kristaps Morbergs and Kristaps Bergs,
  • actors Roberts Tautmīlis-Bērziņš, Jūlija Skaidrīte, Otīlija Muceniece, Artūrs Duburs,
  • heroic aviators Eduard Pulpe and Rūdolfs Zīverts,
  • and heroes of the Latvian Independence fights, just to mention few.


The tragedy of the Great Cemetery of Riga began in 1945 when the war was over and Latvia was reoccupied by the Soviet Union. Interpreted as a German, therefore fascist cemetery, (despite being a liberal Protestant burial ground), Lielie kapi became an ideological target to the new reign. It was partly closed in 1953 and fully in 1969. On the same year, the nearby Senču street was turned into a motor road that further divided the cemetery in two separate parts - the Orthodox Pokrow together with the Lutheran St. Jacobs cemeteries, and the main, initial part of Lielie kapi.

The new rule brought new people in Riga who had quite a primitive understanding of the local culture and no local historical memory. However, they stood for a clear ideological standing point. The following decades of brutal looting, stealing, and vandalism slowly crippled the magnificent environment Lielie Kapi once represented.

Graves were opened and looted, mausoleums plundered, impressive coffins stolen, remains of balmed and unbalmed bodies burned just for entertainment, beautiful sculptures and gravestones taken away. Finally, by the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, those hungry for scrap metal finished the job by taking away intricate brass fences and prominent bronze sculptures, for instance, the Schweinfurt family sphinx.

The 1990s brought Latvia its independence. However, even after the millennium, Lielie Kapi, although not vandalised any more, was still remote and forgotten. Instead the place was appealing to both criminals and Goths in even measures.


In 2016, we launched one of the most impressive and complex activism campaigns in the recent history of Latvia that went on for several years and put the Great Cemetery into spotlight. The municipal power planned to widen the Senču street that already cut the territory in half due to Soviet policies, and to develop a magisterial road in the heart of the historical Riga. The project also envisaged a new tram route; due to the planned line crossing old burial grounds, it was soon widely known as the Cemetery Tram.

Shortly after, the public discovered that the project was a part of EU Cohesion fund application. Later it came to light that it consisted of so many discrepancies everyone started to think the EU funding might be used fraudulently if granted (as usual in Riga then).

Multiple protests, civic intervention, as well as community building when cleaning and maintaining the forgotten cemetery followed. We even received the independent RĪGAS METRS award for this. Eventually the reconstruction project was ceased by the grantor, and a row of corruption scandals shook the city council soon after in 2018.

Despite its terrible story, the Graveyard Tram campaign had one very fruitful side effect - Lielie Kapi returned to the public spotlight. Guided tours became almost cult-like and gained popularity; it helped to rise, although still insufficient, yet needed funding. I was closely involved in The Graveyard Tram campaign since the very first day and, to be honest, used it also for the purpose of lobbying conservation money for the mausoleums.

Everything good you see at the Great Cemetery today is a hard work of dozens of people returning to this place again and again, and taking care of it without any reward. The Graveyard tram is gone, and I believe these humble beginnings have set a good ground for resurrection of the place. The Great Cemetery with its heterotopic beauty, meditative air, and dramatic story has so much to offer for an exhausted, overburdened modern soul.

Rita Eva Našeniece
activist and publicist