Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki is unusual on many counts. Few large, modern cities have a cemetery in the central part of town at all. Fewer still become tourist meccas. But Hietaniemi Cemetery has earned that role by being a continuing source of beauty and stillness in an often bustling metropolis.
Helsinki itself is nearly five centuries old. But the city only became Finland’s capital in 1809 and saw most of its rapid growth more toward the mid to end of the 19th century. One of the results was the graveyard that houses many of Finland’s most notable past citizens.
The highly popular author Mika Waltari (author of The Egyptian and many other novels that were made into films in the 1950s) resides here. The architect Carl Engel, a German, is also at rest in one of the graves. He designed what may be the very symbol of Helsinki to the outside world: The Lutheran Cathedral, as well as Senate Square and many other public fixtures.
But even those much less well known outside Finland, but famous within, are interred here. There are a half-dozen past presidents, a major WWII general, and the famous Finnish artist, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, who has a large series of frescoes in the National Museum.
The cemetery is divided into three main sections: The Jewish section, the Muslim section, and the Orthodox cemetery. Though laid out according to a religious denomination, the latter section contains a wide cross-section of people and statuary.
Each section contains a unique style of headstone, sculpture, and arrangement of plants and flowers. All these things are what attract the many visitors to the destination, most of whom don’t know any of the residents, of course.
Apart from some of the famous individuals laid to rest at Hietaniemi, there are a large number of anonymous but equally important residents. Many brave soldiers from Finland’s past wars are housed in the cemetery.
Soldiers from as far back as the Crimean War (1856) have remains here. Fighters against Russian oppression from the period of Alexander in 1809 up to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 are here as well. Finland gained full independence in 1917 after seven centuries of Swedish rule, followed by one of Russian. Many who opposed the Nazis and the Soviets in WWII rest at Hietaniemi.
A Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a feature of many cemeteries around the world, is a prominent part of the grounds. The lush parkland and many delightful fowl and red squirrels give added beauty to an already lovely area.
Alongside the cemetery is Hietaniemi Cemetery Chapel, established in 1933. Small, with a seating capacity of 225, nonetheless this 1873 building makes for a delightful side trip. The belltower is a particularly striking architectural feature in a city that is a fine mixture of historical and modern buildings.