Tea amidst tombstones?
A fresh – or frightful – take on having a cuppa has recently been making headlines in Germany. our columnist, however, isn’t clamouring to embrace this trend just yet.
WANT to take a walk in a cemetery? Fancy a Pfannkuchen (pancake) thereafter in a funeral parlour? No, I’ve not lost my marbles with the onset of winter. I’m referring instead to an unlikely hangout that is quietly gaining ground in my host country. Cemetery cafés. Café Strauss in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, for instance, opened in May this year and surprisingly, hasn’t met an early death. If anything, it’s apparently been thriving with patrons nonchalantly tucking into torten (cakes) with tombstones for a view. Named after its owners, Martin and Olga Strauss, the café has also attracted much press, with its most recent mention in an article by Der Spiegel. In an earlier interview with the Tagesspiegel (a national daily), the pair revealed that their popular café was originally the cemetery’s funeral parlour back in the 19th century.
They further elaborated that in those days, bodies had to be laid out for three days so that the undertaker could avoid accidentally burying someone alive. Bells were also tied to the Scheintoten or “seemingly dead”, so that they would ring, in case any actually woke up. What is now the café’s toilet was that very “wait-and-see” room in which watchmen sat and listened for the sound of those bells.
Honestly, I myself would be too chicken to visit such a loo alone, especially after knowing of its lurid past. And tinkling bells? Any Indian would immediately be reminded of a Mohini. I can already see the headlines screaming “hysteria” if such a place were to exist in Malaysia!
Yet, Café Strauss is apparently not alone. Bossmann’s café in the St Matthäus cemetery in Berlin’s Schöneberg district even features china, furniture and knick-knacks, some donated by families of the dearly departed, among whom rest the renowned Grimm Brothers.
Other cafés mentioned in news reports include Café Fritz in the city of Hamburg, which hosts music performances and art exhibitions as well as the Schloss Concordia café near Vienna’s main cemetery, which offers, among others, schnitzels (breaded pork chops) in its menu.
Closer – in fact, round the corner – from home, we have Frankfurt’s Main Cemetery. While no café has yet to be opened here, it remains a popular spot for people wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of one of the city’s main intersections that runs just outside the cemetery’s perimeter.
Tranquillity immediately descends upon you as you pass through the turnstiles of its massive entryway into its vast green grounds, generously dotted with ancient fir, oak, birch and chestnut trees.
Some of the more illustrious personalities “sleeping” here include physician Alois Alzheimer (yes, the one credited with first having observed “pre-senile dementia” amongst his elderly patients) and philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer.
My husband is a firm fan of the cemetery, regularly heading there for a quiet walk in
Tranquility: the evening to de-stress after a particularly hard workday. I often politely turn down his invitation to join him for a jaunt among the well-tended rows of graves.
To be fair, cemeteries here are a world apart from their creepy counterparts in Malaysia. While Malaysians are often accustomed to grim, badly-maintained, lalanginfested graveyards that tend to also attract unsavoury live characters, cemeteries here are like manicured parks that just happen to have graves.
That is probably why parents think nothing of coming here with their little babies in pushchairs to get some fresh air and peace – something that I gravely tut-tutted at on my maiden visit here.
City councils or private bodies administer most cemeteries and there are often stringent rules with regards to types of headstones and how families decorate their loved ones’ graves. The living are also expected to adhere to decorum as a sign of respect for the dead. Therefore, while you are allowed to take walks in the cemetery, you are forbidden from jogging or cycling or walking your pets in there.
Similarly, these new cafés cannot advertise their presence outside the cemetery and are to follow the cemetery’s opening hours. And naturally, raucous music or wild parties are strictly verboten. Plans are apparently afoot for two more cemetery cafés in Berlin and another in Munich. Judging from how well the current ones are doing, they ought not fear a premature death.
I guess it also helps that your patrons essentially come from a non-superstitious culture and view death as the indisputable final destination of a life (hopefully) well lived. Where you have your coffee is moot.
Brenda Benedict is a Malaysian living in Frankfurt. She believes she is still too Asian to consider a cemetery as a casual hangout spot.
Peaceful and calm surroundings of a cemetery in Germany. It is not uncommon for locals to take a stroll on its grounds to de-stress.