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I Went to the Opening Party for Germany's First Lesbian Cemetery

Sunday was a great day to be an aging German lesbian. While the rest of Berlin was either tucking into their morning potato pancakes or trying to block every inch of sunlight from entering their comedown cocoons, around 100 people descended on a leafy...

by Jessica Ware
Apr 11 2014, 12:55pm

The Spreedivas performing at the opening of Germany's first lesbian cemetery. Photos by Sabine Glasmeyer

Sunday was a great day to be an aging German lesbian. While the rest of Berlin was either tucking into their morning potato pancakes or trying to block every inch of sunlight from entering their comedown cocoons, around 100 people descended on a leafy cemetery in the east of the city for the opening of the country’s first burial ground for gay women.

The ladies—all members of SAFIA, a German society for older lesbians—were in high spirits, and surprisingly happy to talk about their own mortality, the importance of being visible, and the acceptance of death. One of them said the cemetery was the first of its kind in Europe, but no one was entirely sure. Nor was Google.  

“Some people might say this is historic, but today we're saying her-storic,” founder Hilde Heringer told the crowd gathered in the Georgian Perochial Protestant cemetery in Prenzlauer Berg, just north of Alexanderplatz. “We now have somewhere, for the first time, that lesbians can be buried beside those they loved.”

Germany's tabloids had a field day when the opening was announced last week. “It's pointless!” screeched some, with others arguing that it was actually quite romantic. Basically, no one knew what to think, and it's likely we were all missing the point. After all, besides maybe pallbearers and gravediggers, who can really claim to have spent a lot of time thinking about cemeteries?

But as a string of women hauled themselves up onto the cemetery's new bench to talk about why having the space was so important, and the cheers from the crowd grew louder, it began making a little more sense to the outsiders.

The 430-square-foot plot is on church ground and has room for 80 coffins and many more urns, and spaces for both are filling up fast. “I've reserved my spot already—you've got to move quick,” a woman next to me in the crowd whispered.

The four founders of the cemetery

A series of speeches from the four main founders—identifiable by their matching red baseball caps—kicked off the festivities. Following the speeches, there were a couple of rousing numbers from the city's “Spreedivas” lesbian choir.

SAFIA member Astrid Osterland has been heading up the press campaign. All smiles and lime-green trousers, she gave a clear argument for why she thought lesbians deserved a patch of land in which they could all rot away together eternally, as nuclear families have done since burials began.

“Come here—look at this, all these plots are families buried together,” said 69-year-old Osterland as she jabbed her hand towards an old gravestone. “The Müllers all got to go in together, so why don't we?”

A veteran fighter against homophobia and for the right to be openly gay, Osterland knows she's getting older: “Death is a part of life; it's about learning to live with it and accepting this. Lots of us don't have families to be buried with. Instead, we want to lie with those we've fought alongside, loved, and lived with,” she said, smiling. In fact, pretty much everyone there was smiling—even the Protestant vicar who popped by to give a speech.

Vicar Peter Stock

“We know that the way in which people live takes many forms, but connections to our loved ones stay the same,” said vicar Peter Stock, one of few men present at the ceremony. “The Lutheran church supports the coming together of people in any form.”

Osterland was keen to stress that they had had no problem getting the patch signed off by the religious authorities. It's no secret that new internments at German graveyards are getting fewer and fewer—some people have even taken to hauling their loved ones over an eastern border for a cheaper cremation. “The cemetery authorities were thrilled,” she said, laughing. Which is why SAFIA managed to secure the 30-year contract with the authorities. The whole thing costs around €15,000 [$20,800] and has been funded entirely through donations. No state money is involved, and the women are now responsible for organizing the site. In fact, they've already installed in a very nice bench, commissioned by a Spreediva singer/carpenter.

Volunteers planting trees at the cemetery

In the spirit of accepting mortality, lesbians wishing to be buried there will be able to go for a consultation with another of the founders, Usah Zachau. Judging by her speech, it seems that she has a bit of a thing for graveyards. “I spent lots of time in them as a child—they weren't something to be feared,” she said. "Anything can be taught in a cemetery.”

Presumably the main lesson here will be tolerance. One writer in attendance told me that SAFIA members were part of “an active society. We're political and we want to be visible after death”. She didn't want to be named, but was happy to shout, “Viva la vulva!” across the gravestones. “We've had bad experiences with the press,” she explained.

Slightly less prickly was a lady enjoying the new bench. After inviting me to sit, she told me the area “sets an example that this way of life exists and that it's worthy. Even now it can be hard for young lesbians to be accepted by their families”.

With everyone registered for a plot still very much alive, SAFIA might be waiting a while to christen the ground with its first casket. Until then, there's plenty of gardening to be getting on with. 

@jesscware