It sounds like a Smiths song, but it is an actual place, and it’s wonderful: the cafe in the cemetery. A Viennese Kaffeehaus called Cafe Strauss has recently opened in a former funeral parlor just inside the gates of the Friedrichswerderscher Kirchhof on Bergmannstrasse. The outdoor seating on a sheltered patio overlooks well-tended 19th- and 20th-century graves; the indoor space is airy and spare with soaring arches. Just a few blocks from the noise of Mehringdamm and Gneisenaustrasse, Cafe Strauss is startlingly tranquil, the kind of quiet that makes you realize how loud the rest of the neighborhood is. It’s also cool on a hot day – like the day before yesterday, when I ordered the delightful iced coffee pictured above. A real iced coffee (no ice cream!), with a twist of lovely presentation. I also had a bowl of red currants and gooseberries with yogurt; tart berries featured prominently in the promising-looking selection of cakes as well. However peaceful it is to sit outside there in summer, I’m sure it will fit its surroundings especially splendidly in cold weather: the sight of chessboards stacked on the piano at the back of the cafe promised so much autumnal coziness it almost made me look forward to the end of summer.
The name Cafe Strauss is a triple-entendre: the Viennese waltz composers, the German word for ostrich, and the name of the couple who own the place, Martin and Olga Strauss. In a fascinating interview with the Tagesspiegel a few months ago, the Strausses said that the space they converted into the cafe first began to be used as a funeral parlor in the 19th century. At that time, bodies had to be laid out for three days out of fear of accidentally burying someone alive. Bells were tied to them in case they woke up; what is now the toilet of the cafe was the room where a watchman sat listening for the bells. I’d say that even by Berlin standards, “cafe toilet in the place a man used to sit waiting for Scheintoten to ring bells” is a pretty unusual repurposed space.
And how perfect is it to put a *Viennese* cafe inside a cemetery? I mean, Vienna is the city of the schöne Leiche, home to the world’s only funeral museum, a place whose love of baroque melancholy carries on into the 21st century. As recently as 2008, when longtime mayor Helmut Zilk died, four horses pulled his coffin to the Zentralfriedhof in a hundred-year-old glass coach after a two-hour funeral at St. Stephen’s Cathedral featuring performances of Bruckner’s Mass in D minor and the Blue Danube Waltz by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. There’s nowhere like Vienna for funereal flair.
I like the way the cafe is integrated into the graveyard. One of the main paths of the cemetery runs in front of its terrace. As I drank my iced coffee and read the newspaper, people walked past with flowers, on their way to visit loved ones’ graves. Cemeteries are oases of quiet and green, and it makes sense for the living to spend time in them – sense both in terms of using urban green spaces and as a counterweight to our culturally unhealthy lack of contact with death, the dying, and anything that reminds us of our own mortality. Martin Strauss told the Tagesspiegel he thinks the time he and his wife spend in the cemetery makes them “live more consciously because here we’re always reminded that life is finite.” The cafe’s small selection of items for sale subtly encourages cafegoers to spend some time among the dead: along with their own infused syrups, they sell red grave candles and a coffee table book about Berlin gravestones called Unter jedem Grabstein eine Weltgeschichte.
The Strausses also said the cafe gets a lot of animal visitors, most notably a fox who reclines on the roofs of mausoleums to watch funerals, who keeps away rabbits that would otherwise eat the flowers from the graves.
Cafe Strauss, Bergmannstr. 42, Kreuzberg. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 9am (closing time seasonal depending on cemetery hours, open until 8pm in summer).