Monday, 31 August 2015

Finding Your Ancestor’s Grave (Or Not)

Many of my clients come to Germany to find their ancestor’s graves. Unfortunately, in Germany graves are cleared after a few decades (20 to 30 years) to make room for new graves. Therefore, you will hardly ever find graves of your ancestors, who died some 100 years ago. 

    Berlin-Friedrichshain, Friedhöfe Friedenstraße / Landsberger Allee ©Angela Monika Arnold

Also, sometimes when a grave is cleared, the name is mentioned on a family gravestone, but this does not mean that this person is actually buried there. Actually they might even have been buried in a different town.

If the family had a large monument next to a cemetery wall it is often kept and sometimes even sold to other families who keep it and pay for the maintenance; they either to use it as a place of burial for their own family or just to see to it that it is saved.

Berlin-Friedrichshain, Friedhöfe Friedenstraße / Landsberger Allee ©Angela Monika Arnold


Also often graves of famous people are taken care of by the municipality, this grave, for example, is kept as a grave of honor.

Berlin-Kreuzberg, Friedhöfe vor dem Halleschen Tor ©kvikk

Therefore, before you come to Germany, it may be wise to check with the local church or, if the cemetery belongs to the local community, with the so called Friedhofsamt. You will find the way to contact them through the website of the municipality. Some municipalities (for example Berlin) do charge a fee for this kind of information, others do not. Also be aware that it might take time until they answer, in some parts of Berlin it can take about 6 months as they have to take care of burials as well, which, obviously, has first priority.

Sometimes the cemetery has seized to exist. In the past the cemetery often was close to or even next to the church. The graves were marked with either stones or wooden crosses that simply were destroyed due to the weather and then removed. Later a new cemetery was set up but the graves were not moved so you will be walking over unmarked graves.

The church of Groß Leppin, Brandenburg ©Ursula C. Krause

However, sometimes, if you are lucky, a new cemetery is set up and the old one in not cleared and falls into a deep sleep. Maybe the grass it cut, maybe some stones are removed, but you will still see that there once was a cemetery.
    The old cemetery of Groß Leppin, Brandenburg, situated on the Mühlenberg ©Ursula C. Krause

It is different for Jewish cemeteries. These graves were principally not cleared, however, many Jewish cemeteries were desecrated and destroyed during the Third Reich. Sometimes the cemetery ‘simply’ was destroyed and the tombstones knocked over, sometime the tombstones were taken and used for road construction (which was actually done with Christian German tombstones in Poland after the war). Today, many people are involved in saving the Jewish cemeteries and honoring those who were once buried there and most cemeteries are under preservation.
 Berlin-Weißensee, The Jewish Cemetery ©mazbln

Even if you do not find the graves of your ancestors, do take a look at the local cemetery, often they are a beautiful place to sit down and simply take a break from all the noise and the hurry.

    Südwestkirchhof Stahnsdorf, Brandenburg ©A. Savin


  1. I loved your post. Some of the old cemeteries are, indeed, beautiful. Often, U.S. researchers don't realize that, due to space, many European countries have the custom of clearing out old graves and reusing the plots. I know people who have traveled to their family's ancestral homes, visited the cemeteries and were disappointed to find there were no old stones in the graveyard. It's good to point this out to readers.

  2. Linda, I am happy that you liked my post! It is so very sad to see that our ancestors graves are gone. We always need something to connect to and that often is the grave. While the graves of my great-great-grandfather's siblings in Illinois can still be found, great-great-father's grave is gone so it really is hard to understand for an American.

  3. thanks for giving me this link ursula, it explains why i can't find my maternal grandmother's grave who died in groß-gerau in 1967. her grave has obviously been re-used.

    1. I am sorry to hear that, Carola. And I know how it feels...


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