Dead Men Tell Tales: The Graves of the Brothers Grimm

October 27, 2014 — The melancholy German Autumn rested heavily on the leaf-strewn paths as I walked among dark tombs and stones with epitaphs in a language I could not read. I had walked two miles alone through a foreign city to get to this graveyard. I had nothing pressing to get to afterward, no reason to hurry. Every Autumn we look for those certain, special moments where time and memory, mood and nature all coalesce into a feeling that the English language has no word for. I felt it in that moment, the moment I was looking for the graves of the Brothers Grimm.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were 19th century folklorists who made a life’s work out of codifying a canon of German fairy tales, introducing the entire world to a set of stories that we’ve been retelling and using as templates for new stories ever since. They gave us Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, Rumpelstiltskin and Snow White, Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel. So many more and so much more. They gave us fantasy and nightmare, innocence and violence, adventure and menace. They helped us realize the importance of story in our and our children’s lives. And they just had great names. The Brothers Adlersflügel wouldn’t have had the same ring.

Jacob was born in 1785, Wilhelm the very next year, both in the town of Hanau, Germany. Most of their lives were spent together in academia, and they published the first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in 1812. Both died about four years apart, in 1863 and 1859, respectively, and were buried in Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof in Berlin.

Alter St.-Matthäus-Kirchhof dates back to 1856. Its most peculiar feature is its cemetery café, set just inside the graveyard’s large, ivy-covered front gates. The café is tiny and almost anonymous, no more than a shed, really, with a few tables set out front. It is, I now realize, what every single cemetery in the hundreds of cemeteries I’ve ever visited in my life has lacked. A map near the entrance pointed out all the graves of note, including that of the Grimms, although thankfully I missed it at first.

Because without knowing where they were buried, I wandered the relatively small cemetery at random, kicking through piles of leaves, scrutinizing funerary art flourishes. Generally just trying to make the moment last as long as possible. At one point I stopped in front of berobed female figure in white marble. Behind her, against a black-clouded sky backdrop, was a golden eye set inside a triangle, which in turn was set inside a sun. I don’t know how long I stood there trying to discern the significance of the sigil, but I was eventually broken from my reverie when two men in work clothes approached carrying tools.

They lifted a hidden (to me, at least) door at the base of the figure and disappeared down a ladder into a large crypt below with the everydayness of a paper-pusher sitting down at his cubicle and turning on his computer. I could hear them clattering their implements down there while talking to each other in German, the sounds echoing off the crypts as they performed their subterranean tomb maintenance.

Eventually, I made it back to the entrance, found the map and the location of the graves I was looking for, and headed directly there with the sureness of a man who had just gotten to know the place. The Brothers Grimm are buried adjacent to each other, two of a set of four simple tall columns of black marble. The other two belong to Rudolph and Herman Grimm, Wilhelm’s sons. Other Brothers Grimm. At the base of Wilhelm’s grave someone had left children’s drawings.

I was certainly influenced by the sense of the season and the men whose graves I was there to visit. Because as I left, I felt the cemetery would have been perfect as the setting for a dark German fairy tale. One about a sister and brother who visit the graveyard to see the graves of their dead parents, get enticed and trapped inside a crypt by a marble woman and then are able to escape through tunnels of rotting bodies to find a couple of workmen to help them smash the marble woman with hammers. The moral of the story wouldn’t matter so long as Disney turned it into a movie.