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Scene in Berlin

R.I.P. Berlin: Face your ghosts and tour the city's cemeteries

With 224 graveyards, Berlin is one of the world's leaders in terms of final resting places. As a new guidebook shows, a stroll through a few of the capital's cemeteries is a great way to take in some urban history.

A mild autumn day in Berlin's Neukölln district - a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with a couple of historical graveyards. I've met up with Boris von Brauchitsch, art historian and author of a new and very amusing guide book on the capital city's graveyards.

Our miniature tour starts on Berlin's "cemetery mile" - a 2.6-kilometer (1.6-mile) stretch of road from Hermannplatz square all the way to the autobahn. There are no fewer than eight graveyards here. The reason, Brauchitsch informs me, is that in the 19th century Berliners started burying their dead outside the city, and this was where the city wall used to stand.

Our first stop is the Alter-und-Neuer-Sankt-Jakobi-Friedhof, established in 1852. It's one of those classic, romantic, slightly dilapidated graveyards with lots of cracked headstones and mossy mausoleums.

"Look at the exquisite ironwork on this fence," Brauchitsch says. "Decorations like this were very popular around that time, but in the late stages of World War II, people carted off a lot of the iron and melted it down."

It becomes clear to me that cemeteries not only reflect history, they are also shaped by it themselves.

Picnic in the graveyard

The further we proceed away from the old city limits, the newer and more expansive the graveyards become. The St. Michael's and St. Thomas's Cemeteries, for instance, are essentially parks laid out at right angles along long tree-lined walkways.

In the late 19th century, this was where the nouveau-riche upper middle classes interred their deceased, Brauchitsch tells me. Such cemeteries were also popular spots for rest and relaxation. Families would come out and pay their respects to dear departed Auntie X and then plop down on the well-kept grass for a picnic.

That may seem impious, but Berliners have never treated their dead with kid gloves. The phrase eternal resting place is a misnomer in the German capital.

"The current standard lease for a grave is 20 years," Brauchitsch says. "After that either your relatives pony up some more cash, or you get chucked out."

Even fame is no guarantee that one's remains will be left in peace. Cabaret star Anita Berber, the subject of the famous portrait by painter Otto Dix, was unceremoniously disinterred from St. Michael's Cemetery. An unplesant fate. But there are far worse ones on display at our next stop.

Pious inhumanity

Across the street, to the rear of the Jerusalems- und Neue Kirche Cemetery V are the remains of a barracks that used to house forced laborers from Eastern Europe, who tended Berlin's graveyards toward the end of World War II.

It was often fatal work. These hallowed grounds are located directly next to Tempelhof Airport, where the slave workers were directly exposed to Allied air-raids. Hardly very Christian of the religious communities that exploited the laborers.

Ironically, it's now the existence of the cemetery that's under threat. As mortality rates decline and more and more Berliners decide to be cremated, the need for cemeteries has dramatically decreased.

"Real-estate developers are lining up to get their hands on deconsecrated former graveyards," Brauchitsch tells me.

Perhaps that development is unavoidable, but I still find it a shame. As I've learned this afternoon, Berlin's past comes vividly alive in its many historical cemeteries.

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