The life and death of a city’s cemeteries
by Max Bach
At the time it was built in 1899, the Hermannstraße station was far outside the borders of Berlin. Now part of the city's Neukölln neighborhood, the station is on the southern part of its eponymous main street, whose north-south stretch boasts eight church cemeteries dating back to the mid-nineteenth century.
Appropriately enough, the station was rebuilt-or, buried-under the Hermannstraße bridge in 1992, and its geometric 1970s-style entrances were painted a sharp blue and green supposedly to mark the important transportation meeting hub of the S-Bahn and the U8 subway line, and consequently also giving them an out-of-place, dated yet stylish, look. (A different impression than the bland Hermann Quartier, the little new mall connected to the U-Bahn station.) Not far from here are the necropolises of modernity.
The rapid population growth and construction boom in the second half of the nineteenth century created not only a demand for housing, but also graveyards, as the small squarish cemeteries in the center of the city proved inadequate. Church congregations built their cemeteries on the empty and affordable fields and pastures south of Kottbusser Tor – then the southern gate of the capital – which were easy to reach by going down the country road Hermannstraße. These new cemeteries had a similar set-up: long narrow rectangular plots of land extending away from the street with tree-lined alleys down the middle. While they once stood on their own outside Berlin, they were eventually submerged in the rapid growth of the city.
North of the Hermannstraße station lie three cemeteries on the west side of the street. St.-Jakobi-Kirchhof comes first when approaching from the station. The graves are concentrated towards the front of the cemetery. The back two-thirds is like an empty overgrown lot, sometimes interspersed with groups of graves, the majority of which date back 40 years at the most. The only remaining old graves that one would expect from a nineteenth-century graveyard are the family plots on south side of the cemetery, which are frequently built into the next-door apartment buildings. These cemeteries are simply empty, most of the graves and bodies have been moved.
The Kirchhof Jerusalem und Neue Kirche V comes next. A memorial here marks the location of barracks that housed around one hundred forced laborers, mainly Ukrainians, during the last three years of WWII. The laborers worked to take care of the cemetery and bury bombing victims, all with the support of the church. A walk to the far end of the cemetary reveals long heaps of broken gravestones and mounds of dirt.
Directly north is the third church cemetery, St.-Thomas, which was cleared out in 2007. Even though the front gates are securely locked and „No Trespassing – Private Property" signs line the property, people can be seen strolling through the overgrown lot, usually with dogs. (A search for bones would pay off here.) A path next to the cemetery leads to a bike route along the eastern side of Tempelhof Airport. This cemetery, along with that of the Jerusalem und Neue Kirche, is dotted with now-abandoned air beacons that were used to guide the landing planes while the neighboring airport was functioning.
South of the Ringbahn tracks is the largest of the cemeteries, the Emmaus Kirchhof. It is surrounded by schools, sportsparks, more churches, housing communities for the elderly, public residential co-ops, a hospital, after school centers, and a therapy center for kids and adolescents located in an old brick laundry facility.
The cemeteries will remain – half of them on Hermannstraße are designated landmarks – even if they are only half-used or completely shut. Neighborhood initiatives have sprung up trying to get the city to convert the open green spaces into accessible parks. Then what residents and visitors have long been practicing would be formally recognized: the use of this historic biotope as local recreation spot in one of the most densely populated areas in Berlin.