The Melaten cemetery is Cologne’s largest cemetery, at 55,000 graves, including some celebrity ones. Popular actor Willy Millowitsch, talk show host Alfred Biolek, sex counsellor Erika Berger, and politician Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski are buried here. A visit to a place where death and life meet.
A lady in a burgundy hat is pushing her bicycle along the path as if in slow motion. Every now and then, she unfolds its stand, putting the bike down for a moment to cross the few metres to a grave and take a closer look at it. Here and there she bends down to a moss-covered stone tablet, now studying the black-and-white photograph of a deceased person embedded in a headstone, now focusing on some textile floral decoration. It is a Sunday afternoon in early autumn, with mild sunlight falling on paths, acorns, trees, crypts, gravestones, and the Grim Reaper, the landmark of Melaten cemetery, at a perfect 45-degree angle. I approach the lady in the hat as she returns to her bike. Is there a map somewhere to tell where the famous deceased are resting, I ask her. “No, I’ve never heard of that.” Might the porter have one? I ask her. “There’s no one here today anyway. It’s Sunday,” she tells me. Of course, there isn’t no one there.
Melaten cemetery is quite well visited, even. It’s not so much the surviving relatives with watering cans, grave lights, and rakes, however: Tourists of every imaginable type are strolling across the graveyard. There are young mothers with children on scooters; a few students talking in English; couples holding hands; a man in a suit speaking on his phone. The locals and tourists alike are treating Melaten cemetery rather like a kind of inner-city park. If the Aachener Weiher is too crowded and the Wahner Heide feels too far away, one can take a walk in the 435,000 square metre grounds in Cologne’s Lindenthal quarter. With a bit of luck, one may even discover the life-sized effigy of Hennes the billy goat, the mascot of the 1st FC Cologne.
The cemetery modelled after Père Lachaise in Paris celebrated its 200th anniversary in 2010. The term of “Melaten” derives from the French word “malade” (ill). From the 12th century onwards, a leprosarium had stood here. The patients were deemed lepers and only allowed to leave the area to beg on some specific holidays. On those days, the citizens were warned of the threat of infection by a man called the “Schellenknecht”, who walked ahead of the patients. The sculpture depicting this profession is standing at the entrance to the old cemetery chapel today, reminding us of the lepers’ fate. The remainder of the Melaten estate had been a place of death long before the cemetery was inaugurated, by the way: The city’s public execution site was located here in the Middle Ages. In 1529, two Protestants were burned to death in this location. In the early 17th century, more than 30 women and girls were killed as alleged witches. It was not until 1797 that the last person was to be executed on Melaten ground. This was church robber Peter Eick.
You never leave entirely
“Are you trying to find someone specific?” the lady in the burgundy hat asks, drawing me back to the present day. Her lipstick, as I notice now, matches the shade of her headgear precisely. The first person who comes to mind is Dirk Bach, the comedian who died so suddenly in 2012 – a decade ago already. Unfortunately, she does not know where his grave is located. “I’m glad enough if I can just find the graves of my deceased friends;” she says. Of course, she has passed by some celebrity or another already: Biolek, Millowitsch, and Westerwelle are some of them. “Trude Herr is buried in the North Cemetery.” Herr’s evergreen “Niemals geht man so ganz” (You never leave entirely) still probably sounds just as often at Melaten as it does in other cemeteries.
Along with compositions by Die Toten Hosen (“An Tagen wie diesen”), Unheilig (“Geboren um zu leben” ), and Andreas Gabalier (“Einmal sehen wir uns wieder”), it continues to be one of the music pieces most popular for funerals. It reminds me of the last funeral I attended: A friend’s father had died at over 80, after a fulfilled life. It had been a very personal ceremony. They’d played music by Reinhard Mey, Kate Bush, and Hannes Wader. Next to the urn, they had put up a black-and-white photograph of the deceased, who had loved his garden, on his riding lawnmower. Three days before his death, he had trimmed the grass there one last time. It gave him the peace of mind to set out on his last journey.
Out for a stroll with Master Reineke
Three young women are tearing me from my thoughts. They are enchantedly following the path of a squirrel capering across the Over family crypt (a name that seems just perfect for a cemetery). “I always bring a nut,” one of them announces. As if understanding her words, the animal approaches to less than a metre’s distance. The hazelnut hits the ground, and the fluffy-tailed little animal immediately darts forward to carry its treat away, zipping up a nearby tree with its prize. Melaten cemetery is a refuge for all kinds of animals, rather than merely squirrels. More than forty species of birds are at home here, including finches, blue tits, spotted woodpeckers, sparrowhawks, goshawks, and even buzzards.
On top of this, there are bats, innumerable species of insects, cats, rabbits, and even foxes. They all peacefully coexist with the living and the dead alike here. Many years ago, a fox and a committed animal rights activist formed a special bond. The latter found Master Reineke with an injured lower jaw. He chose to feed the animal until it had healed enough to go back to hunting its own meals. The fox did not forget its human helper, however. For many years, it would come to accompany him on his evening walks across Melaten cemetery.
“The front area here is called Millionenallee (Million Avenue). This is where rich people are buried exclusively,” the woman with the burgundy hat pipes up again. “Let me tell you, people like you and me, we couldn’t even afford it.” She doesn’t think that Dirk Bach is lying there either. She had, however, just passed Willi Herren’s grave. Just take the front left into Millionenallee. “You’ll see it from there. There’s always something going on there.” Herren died aged 45 in April 2021. Two days before his death, the actor, who made it to fame as Olli Klatt in “Lindenstraße”, had opened a food truck for potato pancakes in Frechen. His funeral had to be kept very small due to the coronavirus pandemic, with no more than 30 attendees permitted.
“Tschüss, Ciao und auf Willisehen” (goodbye, ciao, and farewilli) stood on his black coffin, which was carried around the cemetery in a carriage. “I don’t even remember what exactly he died of,” the woman in the hat is now wondering out loud. Was it drugs? No. A crime? No, it wasn’t. Herren may not have been young anymore, but he certainly wasn’t old either. “Of course, working on Lindenstraße for two decades does leave a mark,” she says. “Have a nice afternoon.” Not long after that, as I’m heading towards the exit, a long-forgotten hit song by Jupp Schmitz worms its way into my mind. Could there be a better place for it than a graveyard? “Wir kommen alle, alle, alle in den Himmel” (We are all, all, all going to heaven). Schmitz died back in 1991, to be buried – here, at Melaten cemetery.
Opening hours April to September: 7 AM – 8 PM, October: 8 AM – 7 PM, November to March 8 AM – 5 PM
Every Sunday, 12 noon: Public guided tour, meeting point: Piusstraße entrance, www.ff-stadtfuehrungen.koeln
Dirk Bach, Lit C at field J (14)
Guido Westerwelle, Millionenallee
Hans-Jürgen Wischnewski, field 3 in N
Heinz G. Konsalik, field 69a
Willi Millowitsch, field 72a
Willi Herren, field 72
Alfred Biolek, field 61