Many European cemeteries are known for their enormous monuments and curated landscapes. Generally speaking, Germany is no different – it has its fair share of grand burial grounds with world-famous memorials and beautiful sculptures. Indeed, while Germany has a great many large cemeteries, it has thousands more small regional sites, each neatly tended and respected.
And, while every cemetery doesn’t hold the bones of long-dead celebrities, they have their own fascinating interments, graves and traditions.
On the western side of Potsdam sits the Baroque New Palace of Sanssouci and the borough of Bornstedt.
Bornstedt is predominantly known for the Orangery Palace and Bornstedt Crown Estate, the former home of Princess Royal Victoria, Empress of Prussia. However, its modest old village cemetery is as much of a draw and filled with as much history of the palaces that overshadow it.
The writer Theodore Fontane (1819-1898) visited Bornstedt in 1869. In his travelogue ‘Wanderungen durch die Mark Brandenburg’ (Walks through the March of Brandenburg) he praised the beautiful and artistic tombs of the cemetery and their wider significance.
The cemetery was founded in the 16thcentury and is still used for regular burials and services today, meaning that 18thcentury graves are often settled alongside 20thand 21stcentury interments. Fontane remarked in his earlier work that ‘What dies in Sanssouci will be buried in Bornstedt.’ By this, he is referring to the ‘numerous generals, army officers, chamberlains, valets, Privy Councillors, court doctors, and royal master-builders… (and) above all, court gardeners arrayed by the battalion’ buried there.
One notable feature of many German cemeteries is the cleanliness and care for memorials and the wider cemetery landscape. The site at Bornstedt was alive with families and hired groundskeepers, all mowing, raking and tidying the graves and grass.
Adding to the cemetery’s meticulous and pruned appearance are the modern graves of the Sello Cemetery. Many late 20thcentury and 21stcentury graves are surrounded by tight box hedges, trimmed to perfection like private gardens. The walkways surrounding them are predominantly bare earth, but are meticulously tidied and follow the ordered grid of a modern city.
Also, it must be noted that many European cemeteries operate a system of plot rental, whereby a grave is ‘rented’ by a family for an average of about 50 years. The price of this will depend on the cemetery itself. However, after this time is up, the family can pay another instalment, or, as is more commonplace – if no family members are willing to maintain their residence, the body is (often) removed and the plot and headstone reused. Subsequently, in many small burial sites, it can be tricky to find older graves with their original inhabitants intact. Rather, older intact graves are those of people of standing or of historical importance; not of the working or middle classes.
Another familiar sight throughout the cemetery is a steady stream of yellow stickers. These, a familiar sight across Europe (alongside notices for plots primed for re-rental) are a warning to grave owners against unsteady headstones.
This is a notice so that visiting family members should know to have the headstones reinforced; otherwise, the cemetery will take control of the stones and lay them flat.
Within the Bornstedt village cemetery sits a smaller, private cemetery called the Sello Friedhof. The cemetery was founded by the Sello family, who were famous naturalists and head gardeners at the Prussian court.
Here, there are many larger family plots attributed to the families of prominant citizens. These are primarily large marble slabs, marked with iron railings. As before, there isn’t a stone out of place and not a weed to be seen.
The main attraction of the church and village cemetery is the epitaph of the court scholar Jakob Paul Freiherr von Gundling(1673-1731), who was buried in a wine barrel!
Gundling was Court Historiographer (official chronicler) to King Frederick I of Prussia and is recorded as being a ‘figure of ridicule’ in the king’s Tabacco Cabinet.
As explained in the Cambridge Modern History,
“…his role at the Prussian court came more to resemble that of court jester, as he became the butt of many cruel taunts and practical jokes perpetrated by the King’s rowdy and sometimes violent associates in the so-called ‘Tobacco Cabinet’. Under the late King Frederick I, the Tobacco Cabinet had been a relaxed and informal social circle, including women, which ran on a convivial basis. His son Frederick William I maintained the institution, but fundamentally changed its character. It became an all-male society, whose members were mostly military men who gathered in sparsely-furnished rooms to smoke, hold discussions and drink to excess.”
Upon Gunding’s death in 1731, the King continued his ridicule. Gundling was placed in a coffin created from a wine barrel, marked with the verse:
Here there lies within his skin
Half man, half pig, a wondrous thing
Clever in his youth, in old age not so bright,
Full of wit at morning, full of drink at night.
Let the voice of Bacchus sing
This, my child, is Gundeling
Reader, say can you divine
Whether he was man or swine?
Following this, the King paraded his body through the streets. His corpse was dressed in a ridiculous costume, was awkwardly propped up in his barrel and accompanied by equally obscene songs. Subsequently, clergy refused to conduct the funeral service and his long-term court enemy, David Fassman, delivered the sermon.
Kurt Von Plettenberg was also laid to rest in Bornstedt, being the only participant of the July 20th1944 attempt to overthrow Hitler who received a regular funeral.
Ernst Emil Illaire – Prussian Government Official (1797 – 1866)
The Illaire family tomb is one of the more striking memorials in the Sello cemetery. The grave is a substantial white marble affair with a carved angel pointing to the heavens, a portrait medallion and a striking blue background. As with much of the cemetery, all is very well preserved.
Johann David Mahler (1735-1807)
Mahler’s grave sits towards the front of the cemetery, surrounded by 17thcentury tombs and jumbled older memorials. A successful Wine Trader, the inscription on his tomb is a wonderful example of early 19thcentury German script.
Mausoleum to the Meisner and Branig families–
In the centre of the cemetery sits a modest mausoleum with murky windows and closed under lock and key. However, ascending the small set of steps leads you to the little leaded windows which, when on tip-toe, can be peered through. Looking through the windows reveals a hidden room of elaborate marble markers and a large sculpture of Christ, gazing benevolently down onto a large grave marker. Small by many mausoleum standards, the double family tomb remains the largest grave in the cemetery.
Peter Joseph Lenné (1789 – 1866)
The grave of the celebrated garden artist and city planner is a modest affair, but celebrates a wildly successful life in horticulture. Indeed, Lenné’s work shaped 19thcentury neoclassical garden design in Germany, with his remaining parks today being placed under the banner of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Friedrich Ludwig Persius – 1803 – 1845
Architect and artist to the royals, Persius designed enormous numbers of buildings across Prussia, from villas to churches. His family grave is just as interesting as his buildings, with the central panel depicting two figures in roman dress, flanked by doric columns. The female figure has a traditional head covering and is shown in mourning.
Erich Georg Sebastian Anton von Falkenhayn (1861-1922)
Falkenhayn was the second Chief of Staff for the German army in WWI.
Freiherr Adolf von Sell, Fritz von Sell, Wilhelm von Sell.
The Sell grave commemorates the resting place of three young brothers who died during the First World War. The first died at Ypres, the second died on the SMS Breslau. The Breslau was a cruiser ship, which hit a mine and was sunk during the battle of Imbros. The last brother died in 1914 and was buried at Rochefort sur Mer.
From the perspective of a British person visiting the war graves of German soldiers, it would be clumsy to state a discomfort at my presence. However, seeing the very real, small-town bloodshed and grief of conflicts long gone can’t help but humanise us all.
All Photos my own, unless stated otherwise.