Located on Berlin’s doorstep, Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf is one of the largest cemeteries in Europe. Half fairytale Wald, half otherworldly graveyard, it’s a deliciously spooky destination at any time of the year.
It may feel strange to call a cemetery ‘welcoming’, but that is the overall sensation as you cross through the main entrance into Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf. Fellow graveyard-goers and staff will happily point out their favourite spots and encourage you to cycle along the wide, tree-lined avenue that loops around the grounds, offering easy access to the various sections. It’s a good thing, too, because the site is massive, spanning 206 hectares in total. It’s easy to get intimidated by the sheer size but, as always, there’s an app for that. The cemetery app you didn’t know you needed, Wo Sie Ruhen (‘Where they rest’), can act as your personal audio tour guide to the significant gravestones in the park.
Cinematic first impressions
Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf doesn’t just welcome morbidly inclined day-trippers – it’s also hosted multiple film crews. Fans of the Netflix show Dark may recognize one of the cemetery’s most iconic pieces, a wooden mourning chapel of dark wood and pastel accents in the Norwegian style. I was surprised to find something of note from my own German TV binging: the grave of Ernst Gennat, the founder of the murder investigation unit at the heart of Babylon Berlin. This grave and the eerie statue of a weeping angel can be found right near the main entrance, before reaching the chapel.
Into the cemetery
You can continue on along the main avenue, bordered on the right by the densely overgrown Schwedischer Friedhof section. Head down any of the small tracks leading off from the main path and you’ll be deep in the woods within a couple of minutes. It could be any German forest if not for the tombstones placed seemingly at random along the trails, half-hidden in the underbrush and phosphorescent with decades of green algae. Beyond this section, at the western end of the main path, you’ll discover the memorial to Italian and English prisoners of WWI, a set of orderly, spare plots where you can catch a bit of sun while perusing the quaintly old-fashioned names of the soldiers laid to rest.
You’ll then wheel back around and pass through the left side of the park, which is more cemetery-like than the right. Neat rows of well-kept gravestones line narrow paths blanketed in a soft, glowing green moss. Wander in a bit deeper to the more unkempt areas and you’ll get a sense of the strange haphazardness that makes the cemetery so unique: palm-sized tombstones, whose etchings have been smoothed away by the elements, are scattered between huge, vine-covered mausoleums that are bigger than most Berlin studio apartments and long-forgotten marble gravestones buried back-to-back in the blanket of fallen leaves.
Visiting near dusk is highly recommended. The fading light and the creeping night- time chill combine to give the air a misty quality, sending a shiver up your spine that will have you seeking refuge in the nearby Biergarten as soon as you’ve had your fill. (Tick-Tack, a kitschy little spot across from the graveyard entrance, is covered head to toe in old clocks, which may not exactly calm your nerves.) Whether you find the Südwestkirchhof spooky or beautiful (or both), you’ll likely end up sharing the sentiment voiced aloud by my friend upon seeing it for the first time: “Man, I should have had a goth phase.”
Plan your trip
The cemetery is open all year round with varied seasonal hours. In October, you can access the grounds between 7am and 6pm. To get there, take the RE7 to Potsdam Medienstadt Babelsberg and cycle or bus the rest of the way. Free tours are available on the first Saturday of every month.