They went through the brick gates of the cemetery, sometimes at dark, passing by the graves of famous poets, painters, and scientists. Despite the wealth of historic headstones, these researchers had come to one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe not to visit the dead, but to hunt for life.
Ingo Kowarik, a professor of plant ecology at the Technical University of Berlin, led a team that recently conducted one of the first multi-taxonomic studies of an urban cemetery.
The researchers documented more than 600 species of plants and animals normally found in deep woods, including 64 species of spiders, 39 species of ground beetles, five kinds of bats, and some highly endangered ferns. Lichen in particular has really taken hold in the cemetery—the researchers found 72 species of the slow-growing organisms on the numerous stone faces.
The findings suggest that urban gravesites may be even better refuges for wild creatures than parks, because cemeteries have fewer visitors and barking dogs, and they are often walled in and closed at night.
“Respecting the dead means also respecting the conditions of the environment that is developing around them,” says Kowarik, whose team published its findings in June in the journal Urban Forestry and Urban Greening. “It’s remarkable that in the center of the city, a range of woodland species can survive.”
Weissensee Cemetery opened in 1880 in Berlin, and the bulk of its roughly 116,000 dead were laid to rest before World War II. Notable headstones include political novelist Stefan Heym and Impressionist painter Lesser Ury. While the East Berlin cemetery survived Nazi Germany and the war, it fell into decline during the Communist era.
“Due to the low amount of Jewish people remaining in Berlin, there was almost no effort to maintain the cemetery,” Kowarik says.
Since Germany’s reunification in 1990, Kowarik says, there have been some efforts to conserve it, and recently the government made a bid to add the site to the UNESCO World Heritage List. But the period of neglect through much of the second half of the 20th century meant that trees and plants—some of them left by surviving family members in honor of the dead—began to take over.
The hundred-acre cemetery is split into more than a hundred sections, which now vary in terms of their age, management, and vegetation level.
“When I saw it for the first time in the 1980s, I was overwhelmed by this combination of culture with nature,” Kowarik says. “It’s like a jungle in some parts, but you always see this cultural layer.”
Stanley Gehrt, an associate professor at The Ohio State University, tracks the ways coyotes have adapted to urban areas like Chicago. He says that this new study illustrates the way culture and cemetery management, or a lack thereof, can help with wildlife conservation.
Jewish sections of cemeteries in Chicago are also particularly good for wildlife, according to Gehrt. The cultural trend is to pack graves much closer together, which then allows weeds to grow quickly in crannies that are tough for groundskeepers to reach. The crowded headstones also give animals like coyotes or foxes more cover during the daytime, when people might be around.
"The cemetery gives [animals] a foothold into a heavily urbanized area".
Stanley Gehrt | The Ohio State University
“You end up with almost an overstory,” Gehrt says of the woody parts around the Jewish sections. “The cemetery gives [animals] a foothold into a heavily urbanized area.”
This means cemeteries can connect wild zones in urban landscapes, particularly if they are near old train tracks or other areas that allow animals to move around in relative cover, he adds.
In the case of Weissensee, which is surrounded by a dense residential area in Berlin, the site’s large, old trees and wilderness can provide a stepping stone for birds moving across the landscape, Kowarik says.
Researchers documented 44 avian species inside the cemetery, including some of conservation concern like the icterine warbler, the spotted flycatcher, and the green woodpecker.
While tracking coyotes with GPS collars, Gehrt has found that cemeteries offer other resources for wildlife. Koreans and Caribbeans sometimes leave small dishes and chicken carcasses, respectively, as tributes to the dead, and the tracking data show that one coyote must have assumed the offerings were for her.
“She gets Korean food at least once a week,” Gehrt says. “That’s the cultural influence that’s unique to cemeteries.”
Kowarik says that old Victorian cemeteries in London and disused Protestant cemeteries in Poland, which is predominantly Catholic, also likely harbor unusual animals and vegetation. But the suitability of cemeteries as wildlife refuges ultimately comes down to management choices.
And for Kowarik, the lack of upkeep in Weissensee not only offers an intriguing home for wild animals, it also delivers a powerful message.
“You have the impression that you are in a different world,” he says. “It’s the feeling of the path of history.”