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Melanie SevcenkoApril 22, 2014

Berlin now has its first lesbian burial ground, launched by a German organization for older lesbians, to remember the dead and celebrate living lesbians. Not every gay woman wants to be buried there, though.

Gate of Berlin's lesbian cemetery (photo: DW/M. Sevcenko)
Image: DW/M. Sevcenko

On a Saturday morning, Berlin's Georgen Parochial cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg is the picture of serene. At the top of a hill, just past a statue of a golden angel, lies a small burial ground. Its path curves in spirals, its earth is freshly seeded. But there are no graves yet.

This is the site of Berlin's first lesbian burial area, which opened earlier this month. Usah Zachau sits on a bench in the sunshine. She's a member of Safia, a German organization founded in 1986 for lesbians over the age of 40.

Lesbian cemetery in Berlin (photo: DW/M. Sevcenko)
The site can accomodate some 65 gravesImage: DW/M. Sevcenko

Zachau, along with a small handful of Safia members living in Berlin, initiated the plans for a lesbian burial ground back in 2009. The idea was for lesbians to have a resting place for their community - and for those without a partner or children to have a family.

"My first motivation was to deal with dying and death," Zachau told DW. "I had a lot of relatives and friends dying very young, often dramatically, and so I had to deal with death and I wanted to do it with a group."

'A special culture'

The new burial grounds, according to Zachau, are for lesbians only - and, for the next two years, for those from the Safia organization.

"No sons, no hetero friends - this is especially for the lesbians. We have Safia women who are 89 and older, so they are waiting for the contract already," she laughs.

For Safia, one of the most important attributes of their burial ground is visibility.

Usah Zachau from Safia (photo: DW/M. Sevcenko)
Usah Zachau is one of more than 500 members of Safia, a network for lesbians aged 40 plusImage: DW/M. Sevcenko

"We don't like these anonymous graves, so no one will be anonymous on this ground," Zachau says. "We want to have this area to celebrate a special culture, and that means with the dead, but with the living as well."

The 400-square-meter (1,300 square-foot) landscape has been designed as a meeting ground for both dead and living lesbians and will host choirs, readings and birthday celebrations. With a spiraled path at the center, the site can accommodate around 65 graves.

Already, 30 women are interested in the lesbian burial ground as their final resting place.

A Protestant connection

The organization that owns the cemetery, the Protestant Cemetery Association of Berlin's City Center, accepted Safia's proposal for a lesbian burial ground with little convincing. "We were surprised that we had such open doors," says Zachau.

Nevertheless, Safia has faced criticism for what some - particularly younger lesbians - see as self-imposed exclusion.

"I've never been a fan of people isolating themselves to just hang out with people that have similar traits as them," says Julia Roggatz, a 25-year-old mobile app programmer who's lived in Berlin for six years. "I don't see a reason why, just because of my sexual identity, I should just surround myself with other lesbians."

But Safia defends their burial project. "I can't understand the idea of discrimination, because [the lesbian burial grounds are] only a part of a cemetery," says Zachau. "So we never had the feeling of separation. It's for us, not against the others."

Still, Roggatz is perplexed. But perhaps there's a generational gap behind the logic. "My family has always been really accepting of my sexual orientation," Roggatz says. "So I never really had the challenges that maybe a 60-year-old lesbian had to face 40 years ago. I didn't have to fight [their] fights."

Your own space

Susanne Jung is a funeral director in Berlin who specializes in independent burials. The Safia women came to her for advice when they wanted to create their own lesbian burial ground. Jung says their space is all about taking care of a community.

"These people look after each other. The women usually don't have a great family, so they choose a different kind of community," says Jung. "And this does not end with death. It goes further than that, because once they are buried in the graveyard, they also look after their graves. So I think this is really a lot like family."

Christopher Street Day in Berlin - rainbow colors outside Berlin's city hall
Berlin's gay community is one of the largest in GermanyImage: AP

Jung recalls other communities that have their own graveyards, citing the Alte St.-Matthäus cemetery in Berlin Schöneberg, which has a place of remembrance and burial for victims of AIDS.

"Buddhists have their own space, Muslims have their own space. Well, why is it so funny that lesbians have their own space?" asks Jung. "I think a community does not only end with life. And also, in a community like Berlin, there are many different people living here, and why not find individuality within a cemetery?"

After years of dedication to open Berlin's first lesbian burial ground, Zachau has become quite fond of their special space. "For a long time I didn't even know if I wanted to be buried here, thinking, 'I don't know where I will live for the rest of my life'," she says.

"My kids want me to be with them, in their place. But now I know that I definitely want to be here. First with all the living lesbians, and then buried," she smiles.