Thursday 14 November 2013

necropolis or flying circus

Having learnt that Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen—better known as the Red Baron, the accomplished dog-fighting ace of World War I, has his final resting-place just around the corner here in Wiesbaden, I took the afternoon to investigate and explored the peaceful and expansive grounds of the Southern Cemetery (Sรผdfriedhof).

Walking down the pathways, not rushing and wanting to properly pay my respects to the graves less famous—to me, at least, I noticed that quite a few tombstones bore a pasted on, rather tasteless notice, which read something to the effect, “The lease has expired – please see the cemetery administration.” Later H confirmed to me that indeed plots in Germany are generally rented for a period of twenty years, with the option of extending. What happens to the remains, I asked, and was told that they are usually gone by then. Embalming and chemical preservatives are not used here, nor expensive time-capsule coffins, so everything has decomposed a few a couple decades. I wondered what became of the headstones, beautiful and austere markers meant to last an eternity, but did not ask.
I didn't think people took them home (though the Roman practise was genuine parlour culture, burying their dead in their houses) or stored them somewhere off-site, like winter-tyres. It seems irreverent but I suppose space is at a premium and very soon there would not be room for anything else besides the grave. I noticed that the more modern epitaphs usually bore ones profession also. The architects had the most inspired grave-sites—I wondered what it meant to carry ones job into the here-after (jenseits) and hoped that all really had been proud enough of their careers to make that sort of statement. Other beautiful monuments abounded, like this bas-relief tombstone of a cavalry unit from 1914 that depicts some of the sad and terrible equipage of the war, gas-masks and bayonets. I was unsuccessful in locating the von Richthofen plot, noting that such infamy is usually something buried itself, and wondered how the aeronaut and son of the Prussian elite ended up in far western Hessen. It turns out that the Red Baron was disinterred several times since his final battle: von Richthofen was first put to rest with a military funeral not far from where he was shot down, near Amiens, France in 1918.
During the interbellum years, his brother attempted to bring the body back to be buried in the family crypt, but as the ancestral home now lay in Poland and convinced by Nazi authorities just then coming into power who hoped to exploit the rockstar status von Richthofen had attained through real and attributed victories, re-interred him in Berlin, with fanfare courtesy of the new government. During divided Germany, as the graveyard straddled the border, the headstone was often victim to a stray bullet fired at people as they tried to escape into West-Berlin, and in the mid-1970s a decision was made to transport the body to Wiesbaden and reunite him with the rest of his departed family. I don't want to regularly wander the necropoleis of the city as that's morbid but was glad I took the time to search it out and now that I know it literally is just around the corner, I will look around another day.