In a recent interview, rock legend and poet Patti Smith said that whenever she’s in Berlin, she always goes to one special spot – the resting place of Bertolt Brecht. “I visit his grave and thank him for his work,” she said. This might seem an odd destination: surely our city has, ahem, livelier attractions on offer? But the society of dead poets has serious pull, and not only on American rock ’n’ roll literati.
Thankfully, Berlin is richly blessed in the literary grave department. The most interesting ones are spread all across town, offering a variety of fun – if rather morbid – summer excursions. The Brothers Grimm are in Schöneberg; the Romantic-era genius E.T.A. Hoffmann lies in a small cemetery by Mehringdamm in Kreuzberg. The multitalented DDR author Günter Kunert is buried at Weissensee’s beautiful, tragic Jewish Cemetery. Out at Wannsee, a solemn little monument pays respect to the poet and playwright Heinrich von Kleist and his friend, the author Henriette Vogel: the two died together nearby in a suicide pact, at Kleist’s hand (Vogel was terminally ill).
Finally, for spotting VIPs both quick and dead, nothing holds a candle to Mitte’s Dorotheenstadt Cemetery. This leafy graveyard is the final resting place of literary luminaries like Heinrich Mann, Anna Seghers and Heiner Müller; Bertolt Brecht and Helene Weigel’s adjacent graves are particularly popular. (On a recent visit, I overheard an ancient man telling a tour group that, while Brecht was a great writer, he was a Schweinehund with the ladies.)
The most heartfelt tributes are to Christa Wolf, the great East German author who passed away in 2011: at Wolf’s elegant white marble gravestone (currently being refurbished), well-wishers and fans – myself included – leave pens in memory of her inspiring life and work.
On the face of it, author graves seem like odd places to seek out. What’s the appeal of being near someone’s bones? In 1961, British novelist (and cemetery enthusiast) Muriel Spark showed some BBC cameras around the graveyard at Hawarth, where Emily Brontë is buried. “Life, death and eternity: these are Emily’s great themes,” Spark said. Well, it isn’t just Brontë – these are arguably literature’s three great themes. Authors don’t just write about death: they write against it.
Their hope, implicit or upfront, is that their words will survive among bookworms, even as their bodies fall victim to normal worms. The literary gravestone is a monument to the challenge of eternity, and you can visit in the present – just don’t forget to pack a pen for Christa.