I admit it, a tour of a crematorium sounds strange at first until you learn what is in the building today.
Rather by chance I became aware of a really extraordinary guided tour. The new owner of the Wedding Crematorium offers a tour that not only tells something about the history of the building, but also vividly depicts the future.
Crematorium Wedding – once upon a time…
The population in Berlin grew and increasingly the problem of housing the dead became apparent. The topic of cremation became more and more popular, even though the churches were clearly against it. For them, the cremation of a body was something ungodly. Nevertheless, burial in an urn was allowed in Prussia since 1891. Only the burning of the body was forbidden.
However, there were doctors, hygienists and the Cremation Association who were clearly in favor of cremation. They considered this type of burial, in contrast to burial in the ground, to be much more space-efficient and hygienic (especially for the city’s groundwater).
For a long time, the cremation association fought for their right and were able to achieve a first partial success in 1906. Despite the legal prohibition of cremation, they were allowed to build an urn celebration hall and an urn grove. They were able to use a cemetery in Wedding that had been established in 1828 and had since been closed.
The architect William Müller planned the hall with the additional possibility, if necessary with little effort, to turn the urn hall into a crematorium. Thus, during construction, the chimney, a coffin elevator and the foundation for the installation of the cremation furnace were already planned.
After cremation was legalized in 1911, it was possible to install a Siemens cremation system within a short time, and the first cremation of a deceased person took place in the Wedding crematorium as early as November 1912. By the end of the year, there had already been 66 cremations. Only 5 years later, almost 2000 cremations were recorded.
The existing capacity was not sufficient and a third furnace had to be installed. In the 1920s, a wooden “emergency hall” was built. Here coffins could be stored. In addition, a special cooling and ventilation system with 113 refrigerators was installed.
Use of the crematorium from 1930 – 1945
In 1936, even these capacities were no longer sufficient and a contemporary extension with a second celebration hall was built. The wooden hall was replaced by a new building with 140 seats.
During the Nazi period, the crematorium was assigned “special tasks”. There are indications that political opponents of the Nazi government were disposed of here without a trace. However, there is no evidence of possible involvement in the murders of the Jewish population.
During the Second World War, the crematorium was in continuous operation. Even during the air raid alert, the furnaces were fired.
The post-war period (1945 – 2013)
After the worst of the war damage had been repaired, the Wedding crematorium was able to resume full operations at the end of 1945.
The winter of 1969/70 and a wave of influenza brought the crematorium to the limits of its capacity. Even the construction of a new facility in Ruhleben could initially only provide temporary relief. In 1982, 4 new furnaces and a modern filter system were installed. Working in three shifts, 9,000-1,000 cremations could be performed annually.
After reunification, there were three crematoria for the Berlin population – Wedding, Ruhleben and Baumschulenweg. The crematorium in Treptow initially had to be closed due to excessive pollution.
Between 1998 and 2000, the Wedding district authority had modernization work carried out at the Wedding crematorium at a cost of DM 3.2 million. An underground hall was built with 817 mortuary storage spaces and 11 dissection tables.
At the end of 2002, the city closed the Wedding crematorium. In Treptow, a new crematory had been built in 1999 and now there was an overcapacity. Wedding was no longer needed despite the newest facilities.
The urn cemetery was separated from the crematorium, which was put up for sale. All the interior furnishings were preserved.
The Wedding Crematorium – Status 2018
In 2013, silent green bought the site and has since been building a cultural quarter here. Initial conversion and renovation measures have already created offices, studios, exhibition spaces and a café.
At present, further reconstruction work is taking place, which will create new event areas, especially in the underground hall.
Our tour first took us in front of the listed building. One stands in a small forecourt in front of the main hall. To the right and left are wing buildings. These were used as columbaria. Today, not much reminds us of the original use. Offices and utility rooms are located here. Only the outlines of grave slabs are still visible. Unfortunately, these were removed in the course of the redesign in accordance with the preservation order.
William Müller had a lot to consider in the architecture of the crematorium. He had to manage the balancing act between Christian tradition and the new secular form of burial. If one looks at the figure above the entrance door to the main hall, for example, this becomes quite clear. The female figure is deliberately ambiguous. One can recognize in her a figure from antiquity, a figure of Mary or a temple servant, depending on which point of view is preferred. Also the two griffins at the entrance to the courtyard do not originate from the Christian faith, but can rather be compared with the guards of sarcophagi.
The mourning hall
We enter the mourning hall through a door on which the words Please rest are still faintly visible. The light is dim, I don’t see any windows.
The mourning hall is octagonal and reminds a bit of a Roman domed building. On the walls one can still see some of the more than 400 urn niches – but today without urns. The urn niches could be restored when the room was redesigned.
In the 1930s, when funeral services were held here every 20 minutes, mourners were disturbed when relatives visited the gravesites in the mourning hall. In short order, the urns were relocated and the areas plastered over.
The first thing that catches my eye is the terrazzo floor. It is designed in two colors. In addition to geometric shapes, there is also the image of a snake in the floor. We learn that the snake is the symbol of transformation and new beginnings for the Freethinkers.
Directly opposite the entrance door today is a stage. Meanwhile, this room is used for events. What you can’t see anymore is the place where the coffin used to stand. The coffin lowering system also no longer exists today. It used to open at the end of the funeral service and the coffin sank into the ground. All the technology for cremation was underground and not visible to the mourners.
I was impressed by the simplicity of the room. It is not like in a church, here even the mourner who is not oriented to the Christian faith could feel addressed and secure.
The furnace room
Below the funeral hall is the furnace room. The sunken coffins were transported here fully automatically on small carts with the help of magnetic coils.
We enter the room that today serves as a storeroom. Here, hardly anything reminds us of the original task in this room. Only the tiling, which was renewed in the year 2000, could provide information about where we are now. Behind a small door there are still some urn niches and one has hung up here the metal plates of a coffin sinking plant.
I have to admit, even though the room hardly has any of its original character left, I don’t feel comfortable here at all and so I’m glad we’re leaving the building.
About the chimney
The first thing that catches the eye at any crematorium is the chimney. This is also the case in Wedding.
We are standing in the area of the former “delivery zone” at the plant’s gatehouse. From here, you can catch a glimpse of the massive smokestack.
We learn that this is not the chimney that was planned by the architect. This chimney is located on the roof of the funeral hall.
It was wanted that the technical aspect of the cremation should remain as invisible as possible for the population and so the chimney looked like a lantern. Only after many residents of Weddingen complained about the soot in their homes and the smoke became a nuisance for the residents, it was decided to build a 50 meter high chimney.
In the underground hall
During our visit to the Wedding Crematorium, we were also able to go into the facility’s newer underground hall. In the course of the conversion measures, major changes are taking place here (as of 2018) and so we stood in a large underground construction site. An event hall, a cinema hall and a bar are to be built here.
We entered the mortuary via the former delivery ramp. When silent green bought the crematorium, all the furnishings were still here. From the dissection table to the cooling compartments, to huge storage areas for coffins – after the closure of the facility, everything remained as it was.
Today, there is nothing here to remind you where you are. Maybe that’s just as well. We learn that we are currently standing in a place where 11 dissection tables used to be. I wonder if you really want to know that when you’re celebrating here? I’m not sure…
However, I’m also curious to see how the rooms here will change, and I’m sure we’ll take a look at the end of the construction work.
The guided tour through the crematorium Wedding is conducted by silent green. Exact dates can be found on the website. I found it very interesting and very unusual to discover such a place. The visit was definitely worth it!