All photos by Victor Bergmann
I recently heard about Café Strauss, located at the gates of the Friedrichswerderscher Friedhof in Berlin’s Kreuzberg neighborhood, because it allows one to enjoy coffee and cake in an unexpected resting place: a cemetery.
While eating and drinking amongst dead people at gravesites occurs in various cultures—from the Orthodox Christian tradition of distributing wine and bread at the actual gravesite (during the funeral service) to Día de los Muertos in Mexico—Café Strauss offers regular light café fare, complete with herbal teas and coffees, in the proximity of the dead.
I decided to check it out for myself. When I arrived on a sunny Saturday afternoon, there was not an empty table in sight. The small outdoor tables overlooked the rows of marble tombstones resting in a leafy park. Built in 1844, the cemetery is home to notable deceased residents such as Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), the “Mozart of the 19th century,” and his sister, Fanny (1805–1847), also a pianist and composer. They’re buried side by side.
The view from the other side
I went inside and met the owner, 49-year-old architect Martin Strauss, who learned that the abandoned former funeral parlor was up for rent while he was restoring tombs there. After he purchased the space, it took a year of renovations before the café opened its doors as Café Strauss, in May 2013. It’s cozy, seating twenty in a light and airy room that’s offset by dark wooden tables topped with glowing candles and large arched windows.
Martin was busy filling orders and roasting beans in a hot-air coffee roaster. “We wanted to open a coffee place where we could roast beans and sell good coffee,” he explained. He proudly showed us a bag of kopi luwak coffee, derived from partially digested beans found in Indonesian civet cat shit. Luxury comes at a price, I learned, with Martin having paid $205 for the kilo. He has yet to decide on how to price the coffee.
I ordered a cup and a slice of cake. As I sat outside and drank my coffee, I noticed I was sitting next to Heinrich von Stephan (1831-1897), the guy who introduced the telephone to Germany.
The café also offers an assortment of cakes, described as “very good” by the trio of 20-something-year-old law students who were chatting away at outdoor tables. Another customer, a 34-year-old pediatrician named Anna, was reading The Life of Dorothy Baker in the sun. She said she comes here for cappuccinos and the peaceful atmosphere, speculating that “people are probably quiet due to the influence of their surroundings. There is reverence here.”
The café also hosts funeral events. Mourners often reserve Café Strauss for a post-funeral lunch or coffee.
But today, there was a celebration of life: a 50th-birthday celebration. At a long indoor table adorned with a single balloon sat Helmut, a beer brewer from the surrounding countryside. He chose Café Strauss for his birthday lunch because it serves one of his favorite organic beers from the nearby Potsdamer Braumanufaktur and a pretty decent quiche. Helmut's friend, Jean-Pierre, came to scope it out for his friend’s birthday and was drawn to the calming environment of the space. Aware of the macabre connotations involved, the birthday invitation described the lunch as “a workshop for the future.”
The owners of Café Strauss hope that the older widows and widowers, who often occupy this space during weekdays, have the opportunity to discover new love in the café setting. For Jean-Pierre, the café is a place where “people can think about being dead, or just admire the squirrels and surroundings.”