The Urban Cemetery as National Space, in Budapest: Romantic Nationalism and the cult of death



The study uses the urban cemetery in Budapest as a link to the larger questions of national identity and consciousness through the Romantic Nationalism of space and the cult of death to determine the availing influences it may evoke in the everyday lives of the people in the modern day city.  It will try to show how the “cult of death” in Hungarian mythology, is alive in the modern context and closely tied to national culture, and heroism, represented through historic events, holidays and ceremonies, the reburial culture, and religion (the national saint who was also the first king of Hungary, St. Stephen, is a very strong example).


The cemetery is a worthwhile study as a unique space/place, especially but not only in Budapest. The study into the cemetery space is one that has had little attention devoted to it, in the studies of geography, urban sociology, and gender, national or political research. The cemetery would be an entirely new study into the urban space, and would be based on field research; historical data and urban social and space theory (please see research methodology on page 3 for further information).


This is not a historical study of the cemetery! This is a study into human social geography, the people who occupy and use the space, either for physical, spiritual, or traditional means. A space which once was used to bury the body and create closure for the living has become the place to remember the misfortunes of history, celebrate the hierarchical past, and create a canon of the dead in Budapest. László Kurti wrote that “(Hungary’s) past and its symbolic history proved to be far less easily effaced then the religious ones.[1]” The overlap of religion and national loyalty is now inseparable in the cemetery space in Budapest. Is this all part of national awareness? Is national past a part of the citizenry’s identity, and does the lack of remembering it, mean you no longer have an identity?


Hungary’s link to a cult of death in part derived out of three particular reasons, the numerous suicides of well-known, and respected national heroes - Széchenyi, József Attila just to name two – in which suicides becomes an honorable act. Second, Hungarians are culturally and linguistically isolated, often called pessimistic – a recent study has just shown that suicides can be genetic[2]  – they do not shun suicides; and last the alarming statistics of suicides in Hungary, which have become legendary and part of the mystification of the nation. 


What does the cemetery posses that deserves such respect and worship? Is it religious based, a kind of fear, or a family based respect, and/or something more, something that ensues from within the individual, something that can be identified with? Is respect for the cemetery a respect for oneself, or rather what is seen as a representation of the past? Can the past be forgotten; does it haunt the student throughout the education system – through the retelling of a selected history; the relationships with family – who reinstate the history they learned from school, and heard from their parents; with religion – especially the Hungarian Reformed Church, which prays for the nation, and sings the national anthem after every mass; and with oneself – the stories that will be told to our children? Is National loyalty much like religious loyalty based on unquestionable faith?  How does the message materialize? 


The roles and ideals which govern Hungary are still in large part the historical stories of heroism, the culture of death, and a play on religion, with an influential role on national identity – often used for political goals.  The cemetery also belongs to the socio-political arena with its multi-layered influences from a national history which codifies conduct relations of the space.  The cemetery space – social, ritual and ceremonial – and place – geographical, military and folk motifs – are important to understand in the context of a larger national consciousness in present day Budapest. 


A deep, permeating national consciousness is an integral element of the Hungarian national identity.  It is a nation whether through its own effort or unconsciously, that rarely allows others in.  The explanations for this are multi-dimensional; however, the most notable reason is based on a history of misgiving and mistrust over the last 1000 years. My three years of field study into the cemetery space through interviews and observation, only supports a kind of pride that links Hungary to the cult of death. Whatever the reason may be, its link is most profoundly found in a historical nationalism of revolutions, heroes and claimed injustices towards Hungarian identity, language and culture.[3]

[1] László Kurti “People vs. the State: Political Rituals in Contemporary HungaryAnthropology Today, Vol. 6, No.2 April, 1990: 5-8.

[2] Sharon Guynup “A Suicide Gene: Is there a genetic cause for suicide?” Genome News Network, May 12, 2000.

[3] These include but are not all, the revolutions of 1848, and 1956, the Trionon Treaty, but also the Turkish invasion, the misconducts of the Soviet Union, and more recently political paranoia in relation to Xenophobia, and the Roma.

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