On a sunny April morning, dozens of elderly women gathered at a graveyard in Berlin. But it was not a sad occasion. In fact, they were celebrating a historic event: the opening of the world’s first lesbian-only cemetery.
A 4,300-square-foot area has been made available in one of the German capital’s oldest burial grounds, the Lutheran Georgen Parochial cemetery, and will serve as the final resting place for up to 80 gay women.
The women cheering and applauding among the tombstones that day were members of SAFIA, a German association of older lesbians who came up with the initiative as a way for their community to stay together in the afterlife.
“We are the first real generation of emancipated, feminist, open lesbians, and we need somewhere to be buried,” explains Astrid Osterland, a 69-year-old SAFIA member. “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.”
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.
The plots are open to those who reserve on a first-come, first-serve basis and are available regardless of religious affiliation. The majority of the 80 spaces have already been spoken for, and most of the women are currently in their 60s, so it could be a while before the first burial takes place.
This appears to be a growing concern among aging gay couples. The U.S. approved the first burial of a same-sex spouse of a veteran last year at a national cemetery, and there’s been a gay graveyard in Copenhagen since 2008.
For Berlin’s lesbians, the cemetery is more than just a final resting place. It holds political significance for them as the generation of women who fought for the right to love openly and who now want their cause to be visible for posterity.
The Lesbian and Gay Association of Berlin welcomed the idea of a lesbian-only cemetery, but several German tabloid newspapers labeled the initiative “pointless” or “exclusive.”
Yet SAFIA insists the aim is not to exclude anyone. “It is not a fight against men,” according to a statement by the group. “All those who want to come and honor the dead women with respect are welcome.”
Surprisingly, the most supportive institution has been the Lutheran Church. “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 at the inauguration. His church has given the group use of the grounds for 30 years in exchange for them maintaining the space.
The area is now being landscaped with winding sand paths, and there will be no barrier separating it from the rest of the cemetery, other than the oak and yew trees that are already there.
While the idea might strike some as odd or even morbid to plan so early for one’s death, it’s a symbol of acceptance for the elderly lesbians of Berlin.
“Death is a part of life; it’s about learning to live with it and accepting this,” says Osterland. “Families want to be together after death, and we want it too.”
Why you should care
Because the right to choose how and with whom you live should also include picking a final resting place.