It’s enough to make the dead turn in their graves.
A discount food store sits on what once was part of the St. Simeon and St. Lukas cemetery in the Berlin district of Neukölln. A public parking lot lies on the New St. Marien and St. Nikolai cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg, while next to it an apartment house looms over the former entrance of the same graveyard.
Almost 40 acres of former burial sites have been converted to other uses in Berlin in recent years. These delicate conversions are taking place in several Berlin districts including Neukölln, Reinickendorf, Pankow and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg.
The maths are dead simple. Churches need cash and Berlin needs space.
Berlin currently has a surplus of cemetery real estate but not enough housing as new residents flock to the city. Burials are down as more people opt for cremation, while others prefer to be interred in idyllic countryside spots. The city’s Senate sees the conversion of cemeteries into building sites as a legitimate public interest.
Berlin has more cemetery space than it needs but not enough housing as new residents flock to the city.
Christian Gaebler, the Berlin Senate secretary for urban development and the environment and a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) said the spaces are “potential we can use.”
Pastor Jürgen Quandt of Friedhofsverband Berlin-Stadtmitte, an association operating half the Lutheran Church cemeteries in Berlin, is preparing the sale of more cemetaries. “Up to now, we have sold off 70,000 square meters (753,000 ft2),” he said, as the church follows the cemetery development plan worked out with the Senate in the 2000s.
So far, the only sections to be developed are those where the minimum 20-year resting period for the graves, and an additional 10-year “grace period” of guaranteed peace for the departed, has elapsed. However, it’s possible the grace period, which is observed only in Berlin, may soon be eliminated by a change in the law, allowing apartment blocks to rise up from the dead even more quickly.
Not all of Berlin’s communities are affected by the declining trend in burials, however. Growing numbers of immigrants from Turkey and other predominantly Muslim countries want to be buried in their adopted country, but space is fast running out.
Growing numbers of immigrants want to be buried in their adopted country, but space is fast running out.
Perhaps the best-known Muslim cemetery in Berlin, in Columbiadamm in the south of the city, has no space available. And a second cemetery popular with Muslims in the western district of Gatow will “soon reach its limits,” Mr. Gaebler said. He added that the Gatow site is not suitable because it is so far from the large immigrant communities in the southern suburbs of Kreuzberg and Neukölln.
The question is whether one Muslim cemetery is enough for all of Berlin. According to Mr. Gaebler, 2,600 square meters are available for the burial of 900 Muslims this year and another 7,000 square meters in the next. He considers that enough space for the time being.
According to the Senate’s current list, Berlin has a total of 220 cemeteries with 182 open and 38 completely closed. More than a third of all cemeteries (84) belong to the city of Berlin while 117 are owned by the Lutheran Church and nine belong to the Catholic Church.
The northern suburb of Pankow leads the list of districts with the most cemeteries. It’s also the district with the most acute housing shortage.
This article first appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: Ralf.Schoenball@tagesspiegel.de