As you wander through the tapestry of Berlin’s historic graveyards, the city’s rich history whispers through the hushed silence, blending the solemn Christian customs of Germany with an aesthetic pageant of 18th and 19th century sepulchral artistry.
Why visit these quiet corners of the city, you may ask? Picture this: you’re basking in the serene ambiance of a Berlin cemetery. Amid a chorus of gentle wind brushing through the ancient trees and the distant echoes of chorales that roll from nearby churches, you find yourself in the midst of a picnic by the side of an ornate tombstone, soaking in the artistry etched onto its weathered surface.
It’s the embracing of life’s continuum, right there, amidst the slumbering memories of those who came before us, that makes a visit to Berlin’s historic cemeteries an unforgettable journey through time.
Exploring the Timeless Beauty and Unspoken Narratives of Berlin’s Historic Burying Grounds
Immersed in a compelling blend of culture and history, Berlin offers a profound journey into the past and present that doesn’t rely on rigid travel plans. Rather, it presents spontaneous delights and captivating sights in the most unlikely of places. Among these unexpected treasures, the city’s traditional German cemeteries hold a unique place, adding a quiet texture to the rich fabric of Berlin life.
The city teems with these tranquil necropolises — over 230 to be precise. Thus, regardless of where you lay your head, you’re never far from a couple of these historically and culturally rich sites.
Germany’s progressive views on life’s final journey offer a different perspective on death and the customs that follow. Many Germans, in fact, meticulously plan their own departures while they’re still among the living, selecting from a range of options that spans traditional coffins and cremation to anonymous interment.
In a uniquely contemporary twist, some choose to rest in peace amidst the verdant serenity of forest cemeteries. These “peaceful forests” or “Friedwald,” as well as “funeral forests” or “Bestattungswald,” serve as final resting places that harmonize with nature. In these woodland cemeteries, different species of trees and shrubs flourish, and visitors amble along the paths, breathing in the hushed tranquility.
Here, the ashes of the departed are encased in biodegradable urns and placed into the earth, where they meld with the roots of towering trees over time. If desired, a small plaque bearing a name or a meaningful phrase may be hung on the tree under which a person’s ashes lie.
Despite objections from the German Catholic Church to this environmentally friendly practice and the concept of anonymous burial, the popularity of these forest burials has been on the rise. It’s another testament to the city’s seamless fusion of tradition and innovation, echoing the soulful diversity that makes Berlin so remarkable.
In Germany’s typical burial grounds, there exists a deeply ingrained tradition of care and responsibility that demands either family members or a management company to maintain the gravesites. This involves a rental fee for the plot where loved ones rest, a fee that, if left unpaid, could lead to the displacement of the memorial slab or urn to less noticeable locations. This customary practice explains the varied appearances of graves in both historic and contemporary cemeteries throughout Berlin.
As integral to the city’s life as its buildings, parks, schools, and boutiques, Berlin’s cemeteries are unique spaces of cohabitation, where the pulse of everyday life beats alongside timeless silence. It is not uncommon to see Berliners lost in a novel amidst gravestones, parents pushing strollers along the shaded walkways, or individuals indulging in a peaceful meal under the canopy of ancient trees. While these are undeniably places of mourning, they equally embrace the rhythm of life.
Now, you may wonder why such destinations would intrigue the casual tourist. The answer lies in the intrinsic beauty of these resting places. These cemeteries offer tranquil escapes filled with aesthetic charm that demand to be discovered on your journey through Berlin, be it en route to an art gallery or a bustling café. These hallowed grounds don’t simply narrate tales of the past but resonate with the vibrant heartbeat of the city, weaving an intricate part of the Berlin experience.
Nestled in the Dorotheenstadt district is the famous Protestant Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof, renowned for its illustrious eternal residents hailing from 19th-century culture, science, and politics. Among those at rest here are the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte and his protégé Hegel, who requested to be interred near his mentor in his will. Literature is represented by Heinrich Mann, the slightly less renowned brother of Thomas Mann. Other notables include Russian-born composer Leo Shipps, writer Anna Zerges, neoclassical sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch, and Johann Heinrich Struck, a student of Schinkel, the celebrated leader of Romantic Historicism in Germany.
This final resting place was established by two Protestant parishes in the mid-18th century. Its main entrance is situated right next to the house where revolutionary playwright Bertolt Brecht and his second wife, actress and film director Helena Weigel, spent their twilight years. The home now houses the Brecht and Weigel Museum, a poignant tribute to their legacy. As one might expect, the couple themselves are buried in the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery.
Just to the right of the main entrance from Schausseestrasse, stands a memorial chapel where, in 2015, James Turrell, whose exhibition lit up Moscow’s Garage in 2011, installed a light exhibition. This visual spectacle can still be viewed for a fee of ten euros during certain hours, often accompanied by the harmonious notes of music or a choir.
Second Cemetery of the Protestant Parish of St. Sophia
- Location: Sophien-Friedhof II, Bergstraße 29
Opened in 1852, this cemetery bears the indelible mark of the city’s turbulent history. Its primary distinction is the Berlin Wall that once divided the French and Soviet sectors, a portion of which, adorned with graffiti tags, still stands as a fence. Amidst this juxtaposition, one can’t help but ponder history when viewing the 19th-century tombstones set against this potent symbol of 20th-century division.
Much like the previous cemetery, this one is also compact, with just three paths and a diverse array of tombstones that guarantee to captivate the eye, including elegant instances of Art Nouveau or “Jugendstil” metalwork.
Adjacent to the cemetery is the small Pappelplatz square, a vibrant locale where skaters and locals gather around the fountain, adding a touch of life to the scene. A cobblestone path from the Bergstrasse entrance leads you through a timeline of tombstones from different epochs, offering an intriguing alternative to crypts and mausoleums. These wall graves mostly belong to families, but occasionally, they are dedicated to a single individual, a testament to the affluence of the deceased’s kin. To find the remnants of the Berlin Wall, walk straight from the entrance, then veer left to the end, passing unassuming headstones and children’s graves. These small memorials are frequently adorned with floral wreaths, colorful toys, candles, ribbons, and other decorative elements – a poignant tradition especially prevalent for those who died young.
The cemetery is the final resting place of several notable figures, including Napoleonic War heroine Johanna Stegen, rebel philosopher Max Stirner, opera singer Caroline Medon, and architect Hermann Friedrich Wesemann, the creative mind behind Berlin’s Red Town Hall (Rotes Rathaus).
Location: Invalidenfriedhof, Scharnhorststraße 31
A misnomer if translated directly, the Cemetery for the Disabled echoes a tale from Prussia’s past. King Frederick II established a House for the Disabled here in 1748 for veterans of the War of Austrian Succession. By 1824, this area was designated as a cemetery for Prussian military heroes, making interment here a high military honor. By the late 19th century, it also became the final resting place for prominent citizens and nurses from the nearby St. Augusta Hospital, which still stands near the main entrance on Scharnhorstrasse.
Among the oldest cemeteries in the city, the cemetery suffered extensive damage during the Cold War, with many tombstones demolished to make way for a road and Berlin Wall watchtowers. Today, the remaining graves, belonging to military personnel of various ranks and roles, are protected and regularly restored by the state.
The cemetery lies near Berlin’s central railway station. On exiting, a leisurely stroll along the Spree River embankment provides a scenic approach from the rear entrance. Along the way, you might notice the large bell named after the last German Empress Augusta Victoria, revered as the patroness of churches and the wife of Kaiser Wilhelm II, under whose auspices most of Berlin’s characteristic red-brick churches were built.
A hilly lawn and randomly placed tombstones offer a serene spot for a quiet twenty-minute stroll among lushly decorated graves dating from the 19th century to the Nazi era. Adornments range from colonnades and stone angels to intricate carvings, arches, wrought iron birds, and other elaborate architectural decorations. Expect to find a small statue of the goddess Nike, stone military helmets from different epochs, armor forged as part of the ensemble, and a colossal bronze lion in repose.
In proximity to the cemetery, two notable attractions invite exploration: the Museum of Natural History, housing the world’s largest restored dinosaur skeleton, and the Museum of Modernity at Hamburg Station. The latter’s permanent exhibit includes works by postmodernist Joseph Beuys, “unofficial art” icon Viktor Pivovarov, photographic artist Cindy Sherman, and many other key figures in contemporary art. On the way to the main entrance, at the intersection with Invalidenstraße, a brutalist fountain from the 1990s stands, bereft of historical symbolism. However, before World War II, this spot was marked by a column dedicated to Augusta Victoria and, of course, the fighters of the Prussian army.
Old Berlin Garrison Cemetery
In the early 18th century, this cemetery was annexed to the Garrison Protestant Church, and as the name implies, served as the resting place for war casualties and later, in the 19th century, for patients of the Garrison Hospital who did not survive. The Cold War era, under Soviet ownership, saw the majority of graves destroyed, leaving only a beautiful church and a smattering of historical tombstones. Nowadays, the cemetery is recognized as a cultural monument, and no longer used for burials; it has been reimagined as a public square.
Few tombstones remain, and those that do are scattered haphazardly throughout the inviting space of the Garrison Cemetery. An eclectic mix of neo-Gothic carved crosses, weather-worn slabs, with text faded by time, busts, and tombs ensnared by wrought iron fences populate the area. Here, the living are welcome to walk, read, work on their laptops, enjoy a cup of coffee, and engage in conversation. It’s not uncommon to see people casually seated atop the very slabs that mark centuries-old graves. After all, this little cemetery is centrally located in Mitte, at Rosenthalerplatz, surrounded by a vibrant neighborhood teeming with avant-garde galleries, a diverse array of cafés and restaurants, trendy bars, vintage shops, and the offices of niche brands.
Bergmannstraße Cemetery Complex
- Location: Bergmannstraße 39-47
Nestled within a former vineyard, you’ll discover a cluster of 19th-century cemeteries at this address. Initially divided by walls, the chaos of World War II resulted in the destruction of many of these partitions. While some remain, shaping informal passages, they do not cover the entire area. Therefore, when navigating this historic complex, it’s advisable to treat each section as a separate territory to avoid walking in circles. Google Maps accurately outlines the paths, providing reliable zoning. Multiple gates once serving different parishes are found on the Bergmannstrasse side, but most remain closed. Hence, it’s best to begin at the entrance near the Südstern U-Bahn (subway) station, across from the towering gray Kirche am Südstern (Church of the Southern Star). The gate sign should read “Alter Luisenstadt Kirchhof.”
The Luisenstadt section is perhaps the best-kept area. Separated from the rest of the complex by walls of tombstones, it is recommended to begin by strolling down the main avenue that starts directly from the entrance gate. Afterward, double back and turn right to explore the remainder of this area, where you’re free to meander more liberally.
Though a fully functional cemetery, the Bergmannstrasse complex enjoys popularity among locals and tourists as a serene spot for strolling. Don’t expect solitude as in some of the less-visited Friedenstrasse cemeteries; this place is an engaging mix of quiet reflection and sociable encounters.
Allow a few hours to fully appreciate the architectural treasures spanning from classicism to modernism that populate this site. Should you have limited time for cemetery tourism in Berlin, this complex provides a comprehensive overview of German burial practices. Expect to encounter traditional gravestones, striking statues, colorful frescoes, and imposing mausoleums, alongside children’s tombs, wall graves (where ashes are housed in a niche, sealed with a nameplate), and walls designed to resemble tombstones. The artistry extends to cast iron, stucco work, sculptures, and intricate mosaics. An intriguing historical footnote: 22 minor figures from the Nazi regime found their final resting place here in the 1930s, though their graves mysteriously disappeared over time.
Before or after your visit, enjoy a coffee and a bite at the entrance, where you can dine al fresco overlooking the avenue. Within a short stroll, you’ll find bars, restaurants, the contemporary Gleisdreieck Park, and the iconic Tempelhofer Field. This former airport site is a favorite haunt for locals who flock here to relax, bike, or attend one of the regularly held parties on its expansive grounds.
Old Cemetery of the Protestant Parish of St. Matthew
This intimate cemetery attracts visitors for being the final resting place of several notable individuals. These include the famous Grimm Brothers, who penned many of our best-known fairy tales, rock musician Rio Reiser, and Klaus Schenk von Stauffenberg, the mastermind behind Operation Valkyrie—an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.
Visitors who appreciate antiquity will want to explore the main avenue’s older tombstones. Meanwhile, those interested in more modern grave designs, including children’s graves, should turn right upon entering.
The chapel at the entrance periodically hosts free concerts, a great opportunity for those interested in music and local culture. Like all Christian churches in Germany, attending Masses here is free of charge. For convenience, there’s a café on site— a common amenity in cemeteries situated in popular city areas.
St. Mary and St. Nicholas Cemetery
- Location: St. Nicholas and Marienfriedhof I, Prenzlauer Allee 1, and its second part, the Quiet Park and St. Georgen-Parochial Friedhof I Cemetery in Greifswalder Strasse 229
Evoking imagery of tranquil forest cemeteries, the cemetery of Saints Maria and Nikolai boasts trees growing directly over graves, shrubs and ivy-engulfed tombstones, walled graves, and family vaults marked with World War II bullet scars. The peaceful ambience is amplified by the muted city noise, almost unnoticeable behind the dense vegetation. Be cautious if you decide to deviate from the main road, as nettles are known to grow in less trodden areas.
The cemetery’s isolated atmosphere is enhanced by its rare visitors, making it slightly unnerving, especially after dark. It remains unlocked at night, providing an eerie but thrilling experience for those seeking it, without the need to climb over fences.
A charming café greets visitors at the entrance from Greifswalder Strasse. This part of the cemetery is designated as a “park in the burial ground,” showcasing better maintenance, attracting locals for walks, relaxation on the benches, and playtime with children. Older graves are situated to the left of the entrance. One example of the cemetery’s monumental funerary architectural compositions is the grave of the inventor Julius Pintsch. However, unlike the rest of the cemetery, this area is locked at night.
Despite the official assignment of these cemeteries to the Prenzlauer Berg district, they are practically a ten-minute walk from Alexanderplatz and at the intersection with Volkspark Friedrichshain, an essential spot for those wishing to spend a day reading amidst nature. The next cemetery on the list is just a 20-minute walk away.
St. Petri Cemetery & Georgen-Parochial-Friedhof II
Despite its lack of popularity among locals, this cemetery complex possesses its unique charm. Essentially, it is a typical folk cemetery, serving as a final resting place for ordinary individuals. Notwithstanding, it retains tombstones, statues, and family graves dating back to the 19th century, providing numerous examples of Baroque, Classicist, and Neo-Gothic architecture.
To fully immerse yourself in the era of the German Empire, consider listening to a playlist of Bach’s Choral Preludes during your stroll. The overall experience mirrors that of the historic cemeteries in Mitte, albeit with a post-apocalyptic twist given the cemetery’s significant dilapidation. It may feel gloomy and slightly eerie during cloudy weather, but rest assured, Berlin is a safe city.
For those seeking additional activities, the Museum of Computer Games is within walking distance. And if you find yourself feeling peckish, Boxhagerplatz offers a wide selection of restaurants to satisfy your hunger.