Macabre walk: Zagreb’s forgotten mental asylum graveyard

If you ever find yourself in Zagreb, you’ll probably get a recommendation to visit the famous Mirogoj cemetery (at least from the Tripadvisor). What you probably won’t get is an offbeat tour through the forgotten asylum graveyard of a psychiatric hospital – although it’s as easy as the walk in the park. Because it literally is.

The only thing is, here, you won’t find any famous Croatians. Here lie the people abandoned by their friends, families, and forgotten by history.

In the west part of Zagreb, there is a neighborhood called Vrapče. It is best known for its psychiatric hospital so if someone happens to live there, he or she will at least once in a lifetime hear worn out and politically incorrect jokes such as ”You are from Vrapče? Well, that explains it all…”

By the end of the 19th century, Vrapče mental hospital bought a piece of land to turn it into a graveyard for its patients. At the time, mental illness was not yet understood. Patients were considered a threat to society, a disgrace for their families, or even possessed…

Bare in mind, we are talking about the low-class “lunatics” who had it worse – those coming from wealthier families could just as well rule the Rome.
History mentions hospitals for the ”insane” as early as the 9th century (Cairo hospital with its music therapy), but the first private asylums emerged in the 17th century in Britain. Patients were treated while chained in dark dungeons. In the 18th century conditions only slightly improved. Still, knowledge of mental illness was so poor and constrained by a patriarchal culture that, for example, women could get institutionalized by their husbands and male family members just for being ”too opinionated”. In the 19th century, things went downhill again when asylums turned to custodial institutions, again. Mental health treatments included ice water baths, physical restraints, isolation just to be replaced by the 20th century standards: lobotomy, insulin coma therapy, metrazol stimulation, etc.

Rejected from the society, along with the poor individuals who couldn’t afford to buy a grave plot, almost 3 000 mental patients were buried here on a small piece of land under maroon trees.

Among them were employees of the psychiatry hospital who also lived in the building, the hospital director Ivo Žirovčić (one of the founding fathers of Croatian psychiatry), and patients who died during the bombing of Zagreb by the Allies in 1945.

Walking around, you can also notice a joint tomb with a big wooden cross for those who died alone, without anyone to claim for them.

The last burial happened around the 1970’s. After that, for a long time, the graveyard was neglected. Local tramps destroyed many tombstones, homeless people were taking shelter there, youngsters used the park for their drunken gatherings, and most of the graves were overgrown by weeds. Peculiar neighbors who have lived in a yard ”next door” let their chickens roam free and even ”borrowed” the land for disposal of their belongings.

A sad symbol of class differences even in death – those who had a better life were buried in the Upper town graveyards and those who had nothing eventually lost their graves too.

However, things changed for the better. Although the graves are still ”forgotten” and many tombstones are still broken, you can notice flowers and candles burning on some. The graveyard and the park are now being taken care of, and there are two paths with benches where locals can hang out in peace and quiet.

***

And now, questions I get asked: Is it weird if I like cemeteries? Is this graveyard-tourism all wrong?

It’s a matter of personal taste. Let’s be real, you can make a basic coffee order disrespectful if you really want, so it’s up to you, my little taphophile.

Cemetry can provide historical insight, tombstones can make you think of people’s stories, the state of the graveyard can tell you a lot about how the country treats its past, the way people decorate the graves can teach you about their culture… And some of them, well, they are just plain fun.

I myself enjoy the gothic architecture, the sculptures, the peace of mind and perspective it provides, feeling of connection with loved and lost ones, the thought of death being just one step in our lifetime and its embodiment in the epitaphs about eternity, rethinking my own priorities and ironically, becoming more aware of the life that I have.

As for the Zagreb asylum graveyard, I would say people deserve a respectful tribute. If someone was about to bring a flower or a candle to humanize their final rest, it would maybe represent a small gesture toward correcting the injustice and bring a bit of (self) consciousness for the hardships of living and dying with stigma.

So, if you decide to explore the graveyard on your own, it’s easy to do so:

  • Uber taxi from the city center will cost you around 6-8 euros in one direction (Medarska / Oranice street triangle)
  • You can use the bicycle – many locals bike through the park path
  • Or you can ask the local tour guide to show you around and make a customized tour according to your interests. Coincidentally, I happen to be one.

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