Freiburg im Breisgau, a vibrant city with a Gothic cathedral and one of the oldest universities in Germany, is the place to start my research. It is the city where I was born and graduated from college. When I was 14-years old, the parents of my best friend took me to the Old Cemetery, which was established in 1683 and contains burials from two centuries. I always had a fascination for the morbid and dramatic, so I instantly fell in love with this unusual place. Opening the cemetery gate was like entering another world. The deceased people survive here through beautiful memorials, sculptures and burial stones from the Baroque to Neoclassical period. During my college time, I often relaxed at the cemetery and finally started to research some of the people that were buried here.
The skull on the foot of the red sandstone cross at the St. Michael Chapel reveals a murder that refused to stay buried. It is the skull of an old blacksmith. He has an empty expression on his face. A nail ring is pierced through his cheek and open mouth. Behind the skull sits a small toad. According to the legend, his young wife cheated on him with his assistant. They killed the old blacksmith in his sleep by hammering a nail in his head. They covered the nail under the hair. Soon after the funeral of the victim, the couple got married. A few years later, the blacksmith’s remains were exhumed because the cemetery ran out of burial space. When the gravedigger opened the coffin a toad crawled out of the skull and his head fell to the side, which revealed the nail. The gravedigger reported the incident to the city council. The two murderers got caught and executed.
At the east wall of the cemetery, a sleeping beauty is carved in stone. Her eyes are closed. A shy smile is playing on her lips. She is lying on a bed under a blanket with an open book in her right hand. It seems as if she had fallen asleep reading and would just wait to be awakened from their loved ones. The young girl’s name is Caroline Walter. She moved with her sister Selma to Freiburg to live with their grandmother after their parents died. In 1867, Caroline died of tuberculosis at the age of only 16 years. Selma was stricken by the sudden death and wanted a memorial to commemorate her beloved sister. She had a life-sized sculpture created as the grave. Soon after the funeral, Selma noticed that the wilting flowers had been replaced. Every time she visited the grave after that, there were fresh flowers in her arm. 150 years later, you still find fresh flowers on the grave. Anyone who would have known Caroline would be long dead. People like to tell the story that Caroline’s tutor was her admirer who still leaves flowers at her grave to show that true love is stronger than death.
Another intriguing grave story was that of Johann Heinrich David von Hennenhofer. He was suspected to be the murderer of Kaspar Hauser, Europe’s most mysterious foundling. In 1828, Hauser appeared as a 16-year-old, mentally retarded boy with a letter in Nuremberg. His vocabulary was very limited and he claimed to be raised in a cellar with no human contact. According to contemporary rumours, Hauser was the hereditary prince of Baden. He was secretly switched with a dead baby when he was born to allow a collateral line of the royal house to the throne. After the supposed assassination of Kaspar Hauser, who died three days later, the liberal democratic opposition circles accused Heinrich David von Hennenhofer that he stabbed Hauser at the Court Garden in Ansbach. Hennenhofer insisted he had an alibi but the people didn’t believe him. His grave was tagged over and over with the word “murderer” and other insults until the City of Freiburg finally removed his grave in 1917.
Sitting alone at the cemetery, I often wondered how I would be remembered. Some gravestone inscriptions were ironic or tragic reminders of the transience of life. Others acknowledged the importance of the deceased. Very quickly you get a sense what kind of person is lying there. Most of us will never be a legend, but we can make a difference in the world around us – even in small daily gestures.