Coffee With the dearly departed

lifestyle October 22, 2013 00:00


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A couple takes over a former Berlin Bereavement Hall and turns it into a cafe

Slowly, the procession of mourners behind an urn makes its way along the narrow cemetery path. The autumn sun is shining.
A few metres away, Sebastian Klopfleisch and Gritt Borowski are sitting outside the former bereavement hall of Berlin’s central district of Kreuzberg - drinking coffee. They don’t see the mourners, because an archway is blocking the view.
“I thought it was a charming idea that they set up a cafe here,” says Gritt, 34, who often goes for walks in the cemetery. “There’s something so alive about it.”
Cemetery cafes are not common in Germany. The historic red-brick building of the 19th-century Friedrichwerder Kirchhof cemetery is hard to overlook.
In the past, the dead were first brought there to lie in state for a few days. A tiny bell was attached to the deceased persons’ feet, to avert anybody being accidentally buried alive.
Later, the building stood empty for a long time and the Lutheran Church kept mulling over ideas on how to use it further.
Among the ideas were a chair museum or one for shoes, says Martin Strauss. 
The 48-year-old then won the cemetery people over with his idea for a cafe, which he now runs together with his wife Olga.
The renovation work on the building, which is a registered monument landmark, took about year, work that Strauss himself carried out, being an architect in the employ of the Lutheran Church.
Things are relatively quiet on this morning in the hall. Only the humming of the refrigerator is to be heard and the lights have been dimmed. Olga is behind the tiny counter, preparing some pastries.
“More goes on here in the afternoon,” she says. Previously she worked in a coffee-roasting shop and says the cemetery cafe idea was hers.
Four elderly women have entered the cafe and taken a corner table. “A cemetery cafe makes the cemetery more attractive,” one 73-year-old woman says. Adds her table companion, 64, “It’s a place where you can talk about those who are buried here.”
Martin Strauss observes that “most of our customers are visitors to the cemetery or else they live in the area”.
It was precisely this that Martin and Olga had been hoping to create – a quiet place to meet without any hustle and bustle, in contrast to the atmosphere of the nearby Bergmannstrasse, with its popular taverns, restaurants and cafes.
The German Cemetery Administrators Federation says that cemetery cafes are so far the exception. But in a city of millions such as Berlin, there might be more such cafes in the future.
There is, for example, the Cafe Finovo in a cemetery in the Schoeneberg district.
“In a few years cemetery cafes will with certainty no longer be an exception,” predicts Juergen Quandt, a retired pastor and now managing director of the Lutheran Cemetery Association of Berlin’s central district.
He said there were other cemeteries around the city where such cafes were conceivable or were already in the planning stage. He said this trend was not so much explained by financial factors. “Primarily the aim is to make public spaces more accessible,” Quandt said.
This appears to have succeeded at Cafe Strauss. Memorial services take place there regularly, but there are also concerts and readings. But Martin Strauss takes care to see that things don’t get too lively.
The Lutheran Church has not laid down any conditions, but there’s a tacit understanding.
“They naturally know that there won’t be any Metallica concerts staged here,” he says, referring to a heavy metal group.