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Leave the Angst Behind: A Walk Through the St. Matthaüs Cemetery

Needless to say, cemeteries usually don’t make the list of “Berlin’s Top 10 Fun Family Activities”. If anything, graveyards tend to be popular, almost movie-driven curiosities, and creepy reminders of death. A brain-hungry zombie could pop up from around a corner. A centuries-old curse could be waiting to ruin your life. Well, at least that is how the entertainment industry has shaped our perception of graveyards. At the same time, I’m sure a drunk person blabbering on a cemetery bench could cause anyone to jump out of their skin given the right circumstances. As a scaredy-cat myself, I tend to avoid the places where the dead rest. But never judge a book by its cover, right?

The other day on a sunny evening in Schöneberg I saw the usually-closed gate at the Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof now opened and decided to wander in. There was a blue sign describing the place in German, but what is a quick adventure without a little mystery? I decided to skip the reading and make my way up the stone stairs.

 “Ah, headstones!” I warned myself in my head. The intense green scenery pulled me right in: trees, vines, an endless array of flowers, the sun peeking through the foliage to illuminate a beautiful path. A row of well-preserved headstones stood in an orderly line against modern buildings, and a somber gray cross rose up out of the midst of all the color. Visitors tended some graves, watering plants and picking out weeds. It was warm, welcoming, and peaceful—nothing at all to be afraid of.

St.-Matthäus is a dreamy “Friedhof” seemingly taken straight from the pages of a fairytale book. And speaking of fairytales, this cemetery is final resting place to the famous Brothers Grimm who wandered from village to village gathering tales like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White, a collection they published in 1812 under the title Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) but better known today simply as Grimm’s Fairytales. Four simple headstones mark the graves of brothers Jacob and Wilhelm and two of Wilhelm’s sons.

Meanwhile, another historic figure is commemorated near the family Grimm. Claus von Stauffenberg was a German officer and one of the leading members in a failed 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Strauffenberg planted a bomb in Hitler’s briefing room which killed 4 and left most survivors injured. Hitler suffered only minor injuries. Strauffenberg and his co-conspirators were buried here following their execution. The SS later had them exhumed, cremated and their ashes scattered. Today a plaque memorializes the group’s courage. Their remarkable tombs bear an additional mark distinction with a thick orange brick which reads: “Ehrengrab Land Berlin”, an honorary or memorial grave, with coat of arms. Approximately 60 graves have designated heritage sites by the city.

On my way out, convinced now that cemeteries are not so spooky after all, I took a moment to read the sign that I’d skipped at the beginning of the little tour. Since the first burial in 1856, the grounds have been shaped by architects and landscapers, and have been expanded twice due to its great popularity.

For the unconventional stroll full through history, the Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof is located minutes away from Yorkstraße S-Bahnhof, parallel to Crellestraße. Hours: 8:00-16:00.

By Maria Castillo
Photos © Maria Castillo
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