Catholic cemeteries before 1945

Medieval church cemeteries were not only a burial place and a space intended for praying for the souls of the deceased. Often, paradoxically, they also served as centers of public life. Markets were often organized in their area, as well as judgments and announcements were also read here. When were the oldest Catholic cemeteries in the capital of Silesia created? Which of them are still functioning today?

Christianity was consolidated in Silesia with the establishment of the Bishopric of Wrocław in the year 1000. Parishes were quickly formed, organised next to churches funded by princes, but also by other lay people and clergy. However, the successful development of the Catholic church organisation was stopped in the 1520s when the idea of the Reformation spread in Silesia.

Reformatory thoughts found followers especially in the capital of Silesia. The Wrocław city council, siding with the new religion, at the same time took over the functions of the church authorities in relation to the urban commune it managed. The power of the new religion was already visible in the mid-1520s, when the municipal authorities, taking patronage over the formerly Catholic churches of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Elizabeth, introduced Protestant clergy there. At the end of the 1540s, only every fiftieth church in the Wrocław diocese had a Catholic parish priest, and the number of Protestants and Catholics in the area it covered was equal.

The Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years’ War, shaped religious relations in Silesia, which remained under the Catholic rule of the Habsburg monarch until the beginning of the 18th century. In the years 1653–1707, as part of the reduction of churches (due to the Counter-Reformation), nearly 1.2 thousand buildings were confiscated from Protestants in Silesia. An end to such activities of the imperial administration was brought by the provisions of the Altranstädt Convention of September 1707, in which the Habsburg Emperor Joseph I (1678–1711) committed to creating conditions enabling equal treatment of Catholics and Protestants in his monarchy. The period of Prussian rule in Silesia, which began in 1741, contributed to the decline of Catholicism in this area. The secularisation edict of 1810 abolished chapter and monastery estates, which became the property of the Prussian state. Later legal regulations aimed against the Catholic Church, especially the church edict of 1833, affected its basic organisational units, i.e. the parishes. From then on, they could be dissolved by administrative decision, e.g. due to the number of churchgoers being too low. Such systemic difficulties disappeared at the end of the 19th century, when relations between religions in the German Empire stabilised.

Medieval church cemeteries were not only burial fields and spaces intended for praying for the souls of the deceased. Paradoxically, they also served as centres of public life. Open-air markets were often organised within their area, and announcements and judgements were also read here. A cemetery located next to the church building was a wooded area with a few buildings erected for liturgical purposes and a small number of crosses, which did not mark burial places, however – they were only reference points. Poor city residents were buried in mass graves. The graves were covered with a thin layer of earth, without marking the mounds. Women who died during childbirth could only be buried in a specially designated place at the cemetery, and unbaptised children were denied a ceremonial funeral. Suicide victims were not buried in consecrated ground. Already at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, due to filling the usually small burial space, the custom of moving bones to church interiors (for example, to attics) and thus obtaining new burial places was adopted.

Developed and modified during the Middle Ages were the Christian funeral customs still visible in modern funeral rites of Catholics and Protestants. Only since the late Middle Ages was the wrapped in a shroud body of the deceased placed in a wooden coffin – its use began in Silesia no earlier than the 13th century. The poorest were carried in a common coffin, used only for transport. The custom of displaying the body on a catafalque and reading a burial service, conducted no later than the day after the death, also dates back to the late Middle Ages. Funeral rites were dominated by the mourning of those accompanying the body of the deceased to its final resting place. Loud expressions of grief were also common. Initially, funerals were secular in nature and associated with the very fact of accompanying the body to the cemetery. The spiritual service (which was the responsibility of the Church) consisted of granting absolution by a priest. From around the 13th century, the custom of organising a funeral procession developed, which over time turned into a church procession. Its order and composition no longer depended on the custom, but was determined by the deceased person’s will or regulated by the funeral ceremony resulting from the church order, which was introduced in the form of a legal act during the Reformation (in Wrocław, the first act of this type was issued in 1528). In the Middle Ages, those taking part in a funeral procession were dressed in their best, colourful clothes. It was only in the 16th century that the colour black, signifying mourning, became popular.

The custom of placing grave markers dates back to the 14th century, although they were not always placed at the burial site, but more often – on cemetery or church walls. At the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, epitaphs began to appear in Silesia – initially their texts were of a devotional nature, but over time took a form similar to contemporary tombstones.

The Wrocław Reformation, after gaining a large number of supporters, also influenced the funeral liturgy (Protestant cemeteries). Wrocław city council banned ceremonial processions, including organising funeral processions, as early as 1525. This law was aimed especially at followers of Catholicism; time-honoured public funerals could now only be held in areas beyond the jurisdiction of Protestant city authorities. Only after 1654 did new order regulations enable the Catholic population of Wrocław to return to the old form of funerals.

The rescript issued on 13 December 1775 by the King of Prussia, Frederick II, prohibited burials in church necropolises located within the city walls. In accordance with the royal order, the Wrocław authorities began to liquidate the old city parish cemeteries (including those associated with Catholic churches, of course).

In the 19th century, some city centre Catholic parishes in Wrocław had their own necropolises located outside the city, the oldest of which was the cathedral Cemetery of St. Lawrence [I] concecrated around 1690. Dating back to the 18th century was the Corpus Christi Cemetery, opened in 1715 on what later became Kamienna Street (Steinstrasse). New cemetery structures created during the 19th century were associated with the Catholic parishes of St. Matthias, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Dorothea, St. Adalbert, and also – at the end of this century – with the parish of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Vincent. The second Cemetery of St. Lawrence [II] was created by the parish of the Holy Cross in Rybaki in 1866. The situation of the parishes of St. Maurice and St. Nicholas, connected to churches located outside the city walls, was different. Their church cemeteries (church cemetery of St. Maurice, church cemetery of St. Nicholas) operated almost until the 1870s. At the same time, however, due to their large area of operation – which jurisdictionally included villages near Wrocław – they had several necropolises established in areas which usually did not belong to the city. In 1918, the parish cemetery of St. Henry was established at Strehlener Strasse (Bardzka Street) – the only Catholic necropolis in Wrocław founded in the first half of the 20th century.



Written by: dr Marek Burak
Edited by: Kamilla Jasińska
Translated by: Fabryka Tłumaczeń