"Because of its history it became a special cemetery with its ‘wild-romantic’ look" Olaf Ihlefeldt
"The cemetery really comforts the people that are left behind" Olaf Ihlefeldt
Right on Berlin’s border lays the Südwest Stahnsdorf cemetery. Located in the forest, this graveyard has a quite alternative approach to honour the death. About 120.000 Berliners are buried here, but according to the cemetery’s supervisor Olaf Ihlefeldt, this is not only a place for grief: “Stahnsdorf has become a lively place too. We organize cultural events and give tours for children. People can walk and pick nick here. It has become a meeting place.”
The 45 year old speaks passionately about his work as the cemetery’s manager. “When I first started, my friends were very surprised, just like many other people when I tell them about my job. But when I start explaining them what I do, they become very curious and want to know what happens here.”
Olaf originally comes from neighbouring Potsdam and grew up in the German Democratic Republic. Being a member of the protestant Evangelical church, life for Olaf and his family wasn’t always easy, as the GDR regime considered the independent church as a threat. Christians were discriminated by the regime. At age 20, he managed to secure a job as a gardener at the protestant Stahnsdorf graveyard and slowly discovered the history of this enormous place.
The Grand Hotel of graveyards
The cemetery became one of the largest in Europe with its 206-hectare of land, almost like a ‘Grand Hotel’ of all cemeteries. Olaf: “Many famous Berlin citizens found their last resting place here in the 20s, like the painter Lovis Corinth, the publisher Louis Ullstein and the Siemens family.“
During the Second World War, about 30.000 graves were moved from central Berlin to Stahnsdorf, to make room for Hitler’s newly envisioned Berlin. The cemetery really started to fall into despair after the War. It was originally intended for West Berliners, but when the Wall was constructed in 1961, the cemetery ended up on Eastern territory. “West Berliners weren’t able to access the graves anymore and the GDR government didn’t look after them. The graves got neglected and many premises were damaged. It was a catastrophe,” Olaf explains.
Olaf started gardening a year before the Wall came down. With the fall of the Berlin Wall new opportunities arose at the graveyard. “I got appointed as the cemetery manager. I started talking more and more with the media, telling them the story of the graveyard.” Although it was heavily neglected and damaged, it also gave the cemetery a certain charm: “Because of its history it became a special cemetery with its ‘wild-romantic’ look. Gravestones stand here between the trees. Its really one of a kind.”
Over the years the cemetery has organized many cultural events, like expositions, theatre performances, readings and tours. “For example, the play of Hansel and Gretchen, because its composter, Engelbert Humperdinck, was berried here in 1921.”
Even though to many people this might sound morbid, Olaf didn’t receive much critique: “Only people who hadn’t been here before had comments, saying things like this don’t belong on a cemetery. But when they come and visit us, they see we do it in a very respectful way – issuing themes that relate to the people that are buried here.”
The events are also a way of putting the graveyard back on the map. “Of course we don’t market the cemetery like a business, but in a way our cultural events are our marketing -our way of reaching out to people, by making them curious and interested, and therefore, the cemetery more known.”
Olaf can see a clear trend since the fall of the Wall. “Over 1000 people get buried here a every year now, in 1991 for example, there were only 80 burials.” He also notices that Stahnsdorf is attracting a younger crowd nowadays. “It’s part of life that young people die as well. We see here that many of them chose Stahnsdorf as their last resting place. I think it’s because our approach is a bit alternative.”
Life and death
Life and death are closely intertwined at the Südwest Stahnsdorf cemetery, but it doesn’t get Olaf down: ”It touches me every time I see a family burying a lost one. But I see that this cemetery really comforts the people that are left behind because of the way it is assembled, full of nature and offering people the freedom to mourn the way that suits them. That is great to see.”
Olaf loves his job: “It’s a place worthwhile to be passionate about. When someone tells me they came here because a friend recommended it to them, it makes me very happy.” Olaf himself also knows where he wants to be when he passes away. “Here of course! I already reserved a grave.”