Ever since Wim Wenders’ 1987 film, ‘Himmel über Berlin’ (‘Wings of Desire’) I have been looking for angels in the Berlin sky. Some actually appeared sitting on top of buildings for the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of the Wall. You can also try communing with them in Berlins’ pretty cemeteries. I first intended to write this blog about an enchanting little cemetery called ‘Friedhof Grunewald’ in Halensee, tucked away between rail tracks and motorway and only accessible across a footbridge. But then I got carried away and decided to recall a few more of my favourite Berlin cemeteries.
Angel in Friedhof Grunewald
The German word for cemetery is ‘Friedhof’ – literally meaning ‘peace yard’. In Berlin there are over 230 cemeteries and their quiet walkways provide a perfect escape from the masses, the monuments and the museums. The past lurks in every corner of Berlin so a stroll among trees, tombs and headstones helps put everything into perspective. Then, once the soul is restored there is always a café nearby to restore the body. One or two cemeteries actually have a café on site and there are plans for more. I have mentioned the three Jewish cemeteries in the ‘Jewish Berlin’ chapter of Berlin Unwrapped and these have a particular poignancy and history of their own. Here are a few others worth seeking out. Click on the cemetery name for a link to further information.
The Sudermann family grave in Friedhof Grunewald
The most accessible cemetery in central Berlin is the 18th century Dorotheenstadt Cemetery (‘Dorotheenstädtisch-Friedrichswerderscher Friedhof’)on Chausseestrasse in Berlin-Mitte. It’s the final resting place of famous German philosophers such as Hegel and Fichte, writers Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann and Christa Wolf, Berlin architects Schinkel and Schadow, former President Johannes Rau and many other well-known names. There is also a statue of Martin Luther and a memorial to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nazi resistance fighters. The French Cemetery (‘Französischer Friedhof’) runs alongside the Dorotheenstadt grounds and has a further array of stunning classical-style headstones and monuments. Both areas are beautifully maintained, with mulberry trees and sycamores giving welcome shade. Refreshment is just outside the gates in the cool Café Brecht. Nearest underground Oranienburger Tor or tram M6
Schinkel’s ‘grave of honour’ (Ehrengrab)
Marlene Dietrich, who left Berlin for Hollywood in 1930 and became an American citizen, returned to Berlin for eternity and is buried in a pretty cemetery in Schöneberg called the ‘Städtischer Friedhof III’. Marlene still has many admirers and her grave is always strewn with flowers. Fashion photographer Helmut Newton lies a few yards away, another famous emigré who is buried in his native city. Try BäckerMann on the corner of Südwestkorso for heavenly coffee and cakes after your visit. Two minutes’ walk from the 101 bus stop at Hanauerstrasse or the 248 at Görrestrasse
The Alter St Matthäus Friedhof was the first Berlin cemetery to have a café in its grounds. The aptly-named ‘Finovo’ is in an ivy-clad building just inside the cemetery gates. It was set up by actor Bernd Bossmann in 2006 and has genuine charm. The tables are laid with hand-embroidered tablecloths, ornaments crowd the window sills and the furniture is a jumble of different styles. This is a great place to commune after a stroll around the opulent gravestones and memorials of Berlin’s 19th-century bourgeoisie. Celebrities buried here include the Brothers Grimm and physician Rudolf Virchow. A memorial tombstone honours Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators in the July 1944 plot against Hitler. Their bodies were originally buried here, but SS members had them exhumed, cremated and their ashes scattered. If you go to the cemetery website you can download an English pamphlet with the names and locations of all the graves. A short walk from Yorckstrasse S-Bahn station
Café Finovo, inside the cemetery gates
In Kreuzberg there is a cemetery café with a rather different feel. Café Strauss opened in May last year in a converted former funeral parlour just inside the gates of the ‘Friedrichswerderscher Friedhof’, a cemetery dating back to 1844. This elegant Viennese-style Kaffeehaus has brick arches which frame the view of gravestones and pine trees. You can leave the chattering classes of Bergmannstrasse café society behind and escape to an altogether loftier space. Strange to think that this is where bodies used to be laid out … No really famous graves to see, but the lovely cemetery grounds and the café more than make up for the lack of celebrities. Nearest underground station is Südstern
Inside Café Strauss
For a complete contrast in area, in the East Berlin district of Lichtenberg you can pay your respects to Communist revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg at the Zentraler Friedhof Friedrichsfelde, also known as the Socialists’ Cemetery. The list of those buried here reads like a GDR Who’s Who – including former Party Chairman Walter Ulbricht (who was in charge when the Berlin Wall went up), the first President of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck and socialist artists Käthe Kollwitz and Otto Nagel . Take your own refreshments with you as there doesn’t seem to be a good café nearby. This somehow fits the socialist bill better anyway. 400 metre walk along Gudrunstrasse from Lichterfelde S-Bahn or U-Bahn or hop on tram 21.
Gravestone for Rosa Luxemburg, murdered in 1919
If you are searching for the Berlin equivalent of Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, then head for the magical Grunewald Forest Cemetery and the tombstone of 1960s icon,’Nico’, of Velvet Underground fame who is buried alongside her mother. This is a beautiful, gated and overgrown cemetery hidden away in the Grunewald forest. Until 1927, only suicides were buried here. Now it is open to all and includes Russian prisoners of war. Best to go in summer of course and combine your visit with a forest walk and a meal at the Waldhaus or Grunewaldturm.Take the 218 bus along the Havelchaussee and the nearest stop is Havelweg.
Entrance to the forest cemetery
The cemetery I mentioned first of all also has Grunewald in its name, but this refers to the area rather than the forest. The ‘Friedhof Grunewald’, just off Bornstedterstrasse near the Halensee lake, was opened at the end of the 19th century mainly to accommodate the graves of the wealthy occupants of the nearby ‘Villenkolonie’ (an estate of large grand houses founded by Bismark in the 1880s) so it is not surprising to find headstones with rich mosaics and elegant sculptures. Locals call it the ‘Toteninsel’ (Island of the Dead) but it is far too lovely to be a morbid place. An avenue of pyramidal oak trees leads the way to the cemetery chapel as if to heaven. No café here yet; this is definitely still a magical hidden place. No internet link available in English. Just four stops on the M19 or M29 bus from Adenauerplatz
The avenue of oaks in Friedhof Grunewald
If you decide to take a walk around a Berlin cemetery you will sometimes see a little white flag sticking up out of ivy-shrouded plots with the words ‘Stelle abgelaufen’ which basically means that ‘time has run out’. In Germany death doesn’t always mean eternal peace. Cemetery plots are rented for 20 years and family members have to pay more money if they want an extension, otherwise the plot is recycled and a new occupant moves in. Only the famous have ‘graves of honour’ which are paid for by the state.