Station: [7] The Cemetery

Crosses set at an angle beneath a towering plane tree; yew trees, elms, evergreen thuja and the stump of a mighty lime tree that was toppled in the most recent storm – there’s a unique atmosphere in the old abbey cemetery. It was established at the end of the 18th century. Before that, following ancient tradition, the nuns and canonesses had been buried in the abbey cloister or the collegiate church. But with the rise of Romanticism, burials were moved out into the natural world.

For two centuries, the cemetery served as the final resting place for the canonesses. Ingeborg-Maria, Baroness von Werthern was one of the last to be buried here in 1996. As pastor and abbess of Heiligengrabe, she maintained the spiritual life of the abbey throughout the entire GDR period. Some deaconesses from the Friedenshort charitable foundation, who came to Heiligengrabe in 1946, are also buried here. 

Other graves tell far older stories. Take a look around:

Probably the most striking monument was erected in honour of Abbess Maria Magdalena Rosina von Quitzow, who died in 1802. It shows a young woman leaning mournfully on a pillar bearing a stylised urn. At her feet is a small dog, a symbol of loyalty. The tomb was carved by the Berlin sculptor Heinrich Bettkober, who trained under Johann Gottfried Schadow. Bettkober also worked on the design of the famous Quadriga – the chariot with four horses on the Brandenburg Gate. So this was a major artist at work! The abbess buried here wasn’t an insignificant figure, either. Our museum in the east wing of the abbey has a charming portrait of her from 1752 on display.

But the cemetery was not only the preserve of the abbesses; ordinary canonesses were also laid to rest here. For example, Auguste Friederike Henriette von Geusau, who died in 1770. Her monument consists of an impressive garlanded urn on a plain pedestal. 

Auguste von Geusau, from an old Thuringian family, was exceptionally well educated. She maintained a correspondence with the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the Swiss philosopher Johann Caspar Lavater. With 64 books to her name, she is considered one of the most generous contributors to the Collegiate Library at Heiligengrabe. And it’s a library of substance, comprising twelve hundred volumes. Even the Prussian King Friedrich II. contributed to its holdings by donating his own literary works! 

Art and education were writ large at the collegiate foundation. Small groups of ladies are said to have studied selected works. The library holdings even include a great many opera libretti, because it seems the canonesses occasionally treated themselves to a little outing to Berlin – to appear at court and go to the opera! Such escapades – without a male escort! – were only permissible on account of their status. Otherwise, it would have been considered outrageous for unmarried women to go on such jaunts!

Depiction 1 © Dietmar Rabich
Depiction 2 © Hagen Immel
Depiction 3 © Sarah Romeyke