Cake and Death at Café Strauss

Jane Yager finds opportunities for tranquility and reflection in a charming cemetery café… 


Bergmannstraße in Kreuzberg has no shortage of places to drink coffee: on the bustling west end of the street, a dense cluster of cafés and restaurants vies for the neighbourhood’s tourist-heavy foot traffic. But perhaps the most notable café on Bergmannstraße lies a brief jaunt away from the crowds, at the quiet, cemetery-lined east end of the street.

Café Strauss beckons from a red-brick building just inside the gates of the Friedrichswerderscher Friedhof, a cemetery dating back to 1844. This Viennese-inspired Kaffeehaus opened in 2013 in a converted former funeral parlour. From the sheltered terrace with marble-topped tables and bentwood chairs, brick arches frame a view onto gravestones and pine trees. Indoors, the space is airy and spare with more soaring arches.

The sight of chessboards stacked on the piano at the back of the café promises so much autumnal coziness—surely fall is the perfect season for a café in a cemetery—that it almost made me welcome the approaching end of summer. The sacks of coffee beans piled beside the piano are roasted on the premises; the coffee, unsurprisingly, is excellent.

The food selection is limited but scrumptious: on the savoury side, dainty-meets-hearty little slices of rye bread with various spreads (the horseradish-and-smoked salmon is particularly good); for Kaffee und Kuchen, a rotating selection of tarts and tortes currently features a delightful lemon tart. Cafe-goers who’d prefer to contemplate their proximity to the dead with something stronger than coffee can select among organic regional beers from the Potsdamer Braumanufaktur and a German-focused wine list including several Mosel Rieslings and a Pfälzer Spätburgunder.

The cafe is almost alarmingly tranquil; the kind of quiet that makes you realise how loud much of the rest of the neighbourhood is. The cemetery’s stillness seems to inspire a library-like hush among patrons, especially in the morning. The clientele is unusually diverse in age too, heavy on bespectacled readers of Die Zeit, with plenty of students, young parents with sleeping babies in strollers, and—most unusually for central Berlin—a smattering of folks over sixty.

Image by Lara Merrington
Interior of Cafe Strauss. Image by Lara Merrington

The name Strauss evokes several connotations: the Viennese waltz composers and the Germans words Strauß (the ostrich, the bird on the café’s logo) and Blumenstrauß (the flower bouquets brought to graves). It is also the last name of the couple who own the place, architect Martin Strauss and veteran coffee roaster Olga Strauss. In a recent interview with the Tagesspiegel, the Strausses said that the space they converted into the cafe was first used as a funeral parlour in the nineteenth century.

At that time, bodies had to be laid out for three days for fear of accidentally burying someone alive. Bells were tied to the corpses in case they woke up; what is now the toilet of the café was the room where a watchman sat listening for the sound of bells. Even in Berlin, “cafe toilet in the place where a man used to sit waiting for Scheintoten to ring bells” stands out as a unique repurposed space.

Of course, the idea of a Viennese café inside a cemetery is brilliantly apt. Home to both the schöne Leiche tradition and the world’s only funeral museum, Vienna has a longstanding cultural affinity for death and burial. The Viennese love of baroque melancholy and funereal flair carries on to this day: 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.

Image by Lara Merrington Image by Lara Merrington

Cemeteries are oases of quiet and green, and it makes sense for the living to spend time in them—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 small selection of items for sale subtly encourages visitors to spend some time among the dead: along with house-made liqueurs, they sell red grave candles and a coffee-table book about Berlin graves called Unter jedem Grabstein eine Weltgeschichte.

The café brings its patrons and staff closer not only to the dead, but also to the local wildlife. Squirrels pay frequent visits to the terrace, and the Strausses have developed a particular affection for a fox who lounges on the roofs of mausoleums, keeping at bay the rabbits that would otherwise eat flowers from graves.

Café Strauss