Going Underground: Berlin Cathedral Crypt

Ever have an existential crisis and hop on a plane to Germany to look at dead monarchs? Same mate, same.

Berlin Cathedral, and the Hohenzollern Crypt in particular, was somewhere I’d wanted to revisit since a pseudo educational trip in the late noughties where my love of €3 red wine far outstripped my love of learning. I was waiting for the right time to return, when I finally realised there really wasn’t ever going to be a right time, and nothing in life was ever going to be perfectly aligned, so off I went.

Granted, this was JUST prior to current circumstances, so please don’t take me literally and go rushing to the airport with ‘Kate told me to’ stapled to your back.

The Hohenzollern crypt is not just any common or garden crypt, but the most important dynastic burial space in the whole of Germany, and one of the most significant in the whole of Europe. Even before entering the stairwell to the crypt, you pass over 500 years of enormous, elaborate and gilded Brandenburg-Prussian memorials, tucked in at the sides of the Sermon Church.

Before heading through the door, you’re faced with one of the most impactful statues I’ve ever encountered; behind bars, and enormous bright gold likeness of death sits at the foot of the tomb of King Friedrich I (d.1713)’s wife Sophia Charlotte (d.1705), scratching names into his huge ledger. If any visit was to remind us that we’re all going to die, so best look jazzy before you do, this was it.

The crypt holds 94 burials from the 16th to 20th centuries with the most phenomenally elaborate sarcophagi, showing centuries of changing fashions. The crypt functions as much as a place of funerary and national history, as it does an art gallery.

Every art movement from the late gothic through to contemporary clean lines are shown throughout the crypt, where huge marble tombs sit alongside traditional wooden coffins, still clinging to patches of once-luxurious velvet and heavy woven silks.

The crypt has enjoyed a strange and wandering history, initially opening in 1536 when Elector Joachim II repurposed the vaults of the local Dominican Church as his family’s burial place. By 1542, he’d consolidated his dead and moved his father’s and grandfather’s remains to the new shiny crypt. A few centuries later in 1747, Frederick the Great (who, fun fact, popularised the potato as a foodstuff in Germany) demolished the Dominican Church and built a new cathedral on the other side of Lustgarten, where Berlin Cathedral still sits today. Between the 25th-31st December, the family coffins were transferred between crypts and reburied. At least, most of them were.

Whether it was due to festive over-indulgence or phenomenal levels of carelessness, a few older coffins (Electors Johann Cicero, Joachim I, and Joachim II) were lost in the transfer. Which, considering the size of some of these coffins and sarcophagi on show today, is pretty impressive. Despite the best efforts of officials, the whereabouts of the lost coffins has never been established.

Sorry to disappoint all you keen Kaiser fans, but no German Kaisers are to be found in the crypt. However, old favourite Elector Friedrich Wilhelm (d.1688), who transformed Prussia in to a world power and his wife Electress Dorothea are interred within the cathedral, with Dorothea’s enormous gilded sarcophagus being a particular tourist draw.

To add more problems to the life of the wandering coffins, the new cathedral crypt suffered from some serious flooding. Finally, in the latter part of the 19th century the crypt was rebuilt about 10 inches higher than groundwater level. Sadly, a lot of damage had already been done, but the worst was yet to come.

Bomb Damage, 1944

During the Second World War, the cathedral was heavily bombed; the main dome collapsed, smashing through the church and into the crypt, which also partially collapsed as a result. Some of the sarcophagi were badly damaged, and several were completely destroyed. By the end of the war, a quarter of the cathedral was destroyed and parishioners held smaller services in a section of the crypt, which they renamed the ‘tomb church’, surrounded by the bodies of their dead monarchs.

[Tomb of the Nameless Princess]

Following the war, the cathedral sat in what was to become East Germany, or the German Democratic Republic and the fate of the building was in a very perilous position.

Reconstruction was not an easy task, and the fate of the cathedral hung in the balance for some years, nearly going the way of the Berlin Schloss – a royal palace and main residence of the house of Hohernzollern – that was demolished in 1950. Sadly, the imperial underpass was demolished and northern wing/Denkmalkirche (Memorial Church), which had survived the war unscathed, was torn down in 1975. Once described as a German equivalent of the Medici Chapel of Florence, it was destroyed by the communist government for glorifying the Hohenzollern dynasty; a true loss to Berlin’s cultural landscape.

Reconstruction was finally able to begin in 1993, restoring the church and preparing the crypt and coffins for their first visitors in decades. At last, after extensive renovations, the crypt has been open to visitors since 1999 and has received over 765,000 visitors.

The crypt is a relatively small space considering its historical importance, and the low lighting makes the experience a strangely solemn and meditative experience. Most of the coffins are identified only by numbers that correlate to sporadically posted keys, making the whole visit – with audio guide in hand – a hell of a mental workout.

Visiting on my own seemed to be strangely ideal, meaning I was able to inspect and enjoy each casket, but after spending well over an hour staring at dead royals with my little camera in hand, even the museum guards were getting suspicious.

The crypts are currently closed for extensive renovations and accessibility improvements, but will reopen in 2023, when I’m sure we’ll all be queueing at the gates, chomping at the bit to get in. Guys? Guys, come back…

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