A Very Urban Space: Munich’s Old Northern Cemetery

During my recent stay in Munich, I was also able to visit some urban cemeteries in Munich. As part of my project on the urban dead in Munich and London, I am also interested in the positioning, uses and meanings of cemeteries and so it is always helpful to visit them and get an overview of the spaces that still exist. It is not always easy, of course, to reconstruct or imagine how spaces like cemeteries were used five hundred years ago, but I still think it is important to visit and think about these spaces and the objects on them, if possible and it helps me to get another view on the historical sources I read in the archives.

This post focuses on one of the smaller and perhaps lesser-known cemeteries of Munich. It is nto the famous old southern cemetery, formerly a plague cemetery and then the main burial space for Munich’s elites, or one of the large extra-urban cemeteries, which were built from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. This post focuses instead on the old northern cemtery (Alter Nordfriedhof or Alter Nördlicher Friedhof) and how religion and urbanity interact in interesting ways in this space.

The old northern cemetery (Alter Nordfriedhof), Munich. (Creative Commens License, see here for details).

A Short History of the Northern Cemetery

In order to understand the old northern cemetery, we have to turn our attention first to its counter-part in the South, the Alte Südfriedhof. Until 1563 most of Munich’s cemeteries were located within the city walls. This changed with the establishment of the southern cemtery (Südfriedhof), also called Friedhof vor dem Sendlinger Tor due to its location in front of one of the city’s main gates. Here, victims of plague were buried and Protestants who died in the city were probably buried near this space as well, though the location of Protestant burials in Munich is still not entirely clear, not least because there was a court, which contained a range of different religious and confessional actors.

A 1789 decree by Elector Karl Theodor banned burials intra muros, i.e. within the city walls of Munich. At that time the Southern Cemetery became the only and general burial place for the dead from the entire city area. This meant that the urban elites were now buried in this space and led to a significant increase in elaborate and costly funeral monuments. Mayors, councilors, professors, intellectuals and important business owners built funeral monuments for themselves and their wives, many of the most impressive ones located next to the walls. Increasingly, however, this cemetery became too small for the rapidly growing city, so plans for a new cemetery in the northern part of the city were drawn up. Between June 1866 and summer 1869, the Northern Cemetery was built in the Maxvorstadt.

The location of the cemetery was contested by different groups and there was some debate about where exactly it should be located. While there seems ot have been a general consensus that mroe burial space was needed for Munich, local citizens objected to a cemetery that was so central. The local neighbourhood did not want to “spoil” “this beautiful environment” with a cemetery under any circumstances. In this period we see a similar concern about the appropriate commemoration of the dead, not too elaborate, but at the same time signifcant for showing one’s wealth, status and family acumen.

Comissioned by the local magistrates, the arhcitect, Arnold Zenetti (1824-1891) prevailed against all opposition and his design for the cemetery was implemented. The Northern Cemetery (then, not the “old” northern cemetery yet) was opened on 5 October 1868. The first burial was that of the town preacher of St. Ludwig’s Church, whose body was moved to the space. When it was opened, the cemetery contained 9,000 family graves and 30 crypts in the arcades.

It is worth pausing with this example of the inauguration of the new space because it illustrates a number of key features of the sepulcral landscapes of many early modern cities. First, there was a growing uneasiness about burials inside the city walls and concerns about hygiene as well as problemes revovling around the presence of the dead within the city spaces. But, as the establishment of the crypts shows, the new cemeteries still provided the opportunity for citizens of Munich to show themselves to be wealthy and important. Archival sources confirm the importance of these crypts, and family burial sites more broadly, and they also indicate the wish of families for their deceased to remain visible and accessible. Second, there was an increasing emphasis on city planning, something that already started in the decades and centuries before, but the ability of Zenetti to implement his plans regardless of resistance by some of the local population shows that the urban magistrates recognised the importance of sustained city planning efforts. Finally, the practice of burying an important figure, in the form the local preacher, was a common one but it is worth noting that this was a religious actor, who was made to lend his authority to the space. This religious dimension extended further: the cemetery was consecrated by the Catholic archbishop in the morning and the Protestant dean in the afternoon. While the space was therefore accessible for both Protestant and Catholic idnividuals, this was not a simpel secularisation of burial spaces.

The arcades on the western side of the cemetery. (Creative Commons License, see here for details).

A Simple Space with many Functions

The space now contains some illustrious dead (see here for a list), but burials do not take place there any longer. This is connected to the more recent history of the cemetery. In 1939, Hitler ordered that the walls and tomb stones shoul be torn down and the space flattened, to build a representative street through the city (a Prachtstraße). The beginning of World War II prevented these plans, but due to damages sustained during the war, the space was no longer used for any burials, so the last burial took place in 1939. Now, around 800 tomb stones survive. The lack of burials and associated processions enables the use of the space for many functions, aided by the design of the space.

Originally, the cemetery was divided into 16 fields of equal size, the basic shape is rectangular. Along the western wall 30 arcade tombs were built and one can find a big cross by the sculptor Johann von Halbig (1814-1882) in the centre of the space. The basic geometric patterns and the (at least partial) arcades along the wall were in keeping with the Campo Santo design, one of the most interesting architectural traditions in cemetery architecture.

The division of the cemetery lends itself to uses, which Zenetti may not have envisaged when he designed the new cemetery. The space is easy to access, the many ways provide opportunities for many peopel to walk or run at the same time and the trees and plants make the space appealing to many people, who want to escape from the busy city life. So now, the space is popular with runners, who cross thorogh the space on their training rounds, it is one of the few green spaces in the Maxvorstadt of Munich and information plaques in the centre of the cemetery appeal to those interested in history, conservation or nature. With the increasing urbanization and gentrification of the area, there are few possibilities to excercise in green spaces and the northern cemetery is one of them. Additionally, there are still some people, who come to look at graves and remember a (distant) relative. Of course, the former cemetery also has a Tripadvisor page

But the lack of space in the dense city also means that other activites happen here: sports, picnics, walks and games with children are all common features of the northern cemetery and one can see them when storlling around. A nearby nursery and a lot of restaurants, which provide take-away food increase the traffic of young children and those looking for a quiet spot to eat their food. In fact, there is a playground attached to the cemetery and still within the original cemetery walls. So popular is the space for children that the locals can just say they meet to “play in the cemetery” (“zum Spielen auf den Friedhof”) and they know were to go.

Conflict and Compromise

The many uses of cemeteries like the one in Munich can also lead to conflict: a 2011 report from a local newspaper introduced an initiatve that was supposed to protect some of the “dignity” of the cemetery space by informing people about the meaning behind the cemetery and the fact that people were buried there. The official entry on the cemetery in Munich’s webportal stresses similar features:

The tolerance practiced for years in the Old Northern Cemetery is endangered when individual users lose a sense of the dignity of the place. In individual cases, actions such as barbecues or parties with loud music between the graves, ball games and climbing onto gravestones, putting up hammocks or slaglines around trees that are under protection, as well as left-over beer bottles in the cemeteries endanger the previously open and tolerant, but at the same time respectful use of the cemetery.

Die seit Jahren geübte Toleranz im Alten Nördlichen Friedhof ist gefährdet, wenn einzelne Nutzerinnen und Nutzer das Gespür für die Würde des Ortes verlieren. In Einzelfällen vorgekommene Aktionen wie Grillen oder Parties mit lauter Musik zwischen den Gräbern, Ballspielen und Klettern auf Grabmälern, Aufspannen von Hängematten oder Slaglines um Bäume, die unter Naturschutz stehen sowie liegengelassene Bierflaschen in den Gräberfeldern gefährden die bisher offene und tolerante, aber gleichzeitig respektvolle Friedhofsnutzung.

muenchen. de. Das offizielle Stadtportal

These instructions were mainly aimed at those who seem to treat the cemetery like any other space, having parties, playing loud music and staying there late into the night, like in a “normal” park. There are interesting echoes here of attempts to regulate urban life in the early modern period through orders, ordinances and instructions (Leichen– or Begräbnisordnungen), which decreed how many people were allowed at a funeral, what guests were supposed to eat at the funeral or what grave monuments should look like. But the modern instructions also raise interesting questions: Why, if no one was buried in the cemtery for more than seventy years, is there a “dignity” of the place? The mortal remains of the dead are likely already decomposed and anyone buried there would likely be a distant relative of any visitors, so what should be “respected”? Besides the fact that there are some special monuments, what is the difference between a public park and a former cemetery?

We can see several urban phenomena coming together in the old northern cemetery: the density and resulting lack of green spaces, the multiplicity of functions within a confined area and the presence of a large range of actors. But we can also see this as a space, where religion and religious symbols have to be redefined: according to newspaper reports, local campaigns and urban magistrates recognise that some actions could still be performed in a respectful manner, regardless of the previously sacred meaning of the space, religious signs are still encountered by those who use the space, no matter for what purpose, the church is clearly visible from the cemtery and, as we have seen, the opening of the cemetery was steeped in religious rituals.

St. Joseph’s Church, visible from the old northern cemetery. (Creative Commons License, see here for details).

The multiplicity of uses of cemeteries, or in the Middle Ages and early modern period churchyards, is nothing new. As we know from the works of Martin Illi and others, the places where the dead were buried (in many cases around the church) had a wide range of functions in the Middle Ages: fairs, markets and gatherings were held there, people met, talked and gossiped, they ate, drank and brawled in the space and, of course, they buried and mourned their dead there. At first glance, it seems that modern cemeteries have lost much of this multifunctionality. But as the case of the northern cemetery shows, modern cemeteries can have just as many functions, especially those in cities. Interestingly, the northern “cemetery” of Munich lost its original function in the process and people are no longer buried there. But, at least for some people, taht does not mean that the space is just like any other urban park.

On the way to work and through rows of tomb stones… businessmen crossing Bunhill Fields cemetery in London. (image by author)

The northern cemetery of Munich was not the first time that I was struck by cemeteries as deeply intertwined with the hustle and bustle of city life, including as throughfares, as in the picture of Bunhill Fields in London above, some cemeteries in Berlin, which take place next to Turkish open air markets, leading to a mixing of the silence on the cemeteries with the shouting on the market or the cemetery of Porto in Portugal, where planes fly over the cemetery at low altitude, serving as a constant reminder of urban connections with other places. At the same time, many of these spaces also still serve religious purposes or, at the very least, they are steeped in religious smybolism and history. The urban cemetery, then, can teach us a lot about religion, urbanity and much else.

Martin Christ is a KFG post-doctoral research fellow working on the urban dead in Munich and London, c. 1520-1870.

If you want to visit the Alter Nordfriedhof: Arcisstraße 45, 80799 München

If you want to know more about the urban dead: Martin Christ will deliver a streamed lecture as part of the KFG’s Ringvorlesung on 01 December 2020.


Christ, Martin. “A Very Urban Space: Munich’s Old Northern Cemetery”. Religion and Urbanity Blog. KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779).  26/11/2020. https://urbrel.hypotheses.org/1238



Cite this blog post
Martin Christ (2020, November 26). A Very Urban Space: Munich’s Old Northern Cemetery. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3d9

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