Mith canonization, the peace of the dead is mostly gone. This applies to the church’s witnesses of faith as well as to secular founders of culture and identity. The desire for permanent preservation and viewing of their physical remains results from the veneration. The topos of the incorruptibility of “holy” flesh, which Giorgio Vasari already transferred to Michelangelo’s corpse, corresponds to traditional preparatory knowledge, as was shown most recently during the laying out of Blessed Carlo Acutis. The conservation of Goethe’s remains, which was carried out in Weimar half a century ago, is not a special case in terms of cultural history.
Joseph Haydn’s skull was stolen from the fresh grave in 1809. The preparation was exhibited in the Museum of the Society of Friends of Music for a long time; it was only brought together with the skeleton, which was moved to Eisenstadt in 1820, in 1954. In Weimar, Carl Leberecht Schwabe hid Schiller’s skull from the “chaos of mold and rot” of the cash register vault in 1826, thus laying the foundation for the almost two centuries-long dispute about the authenticity of the relic . After makeshift arrangements in Goethe’s study and the grand ducal library, the remains finally ended up in the prince’s crypt.
Goethe and Schiller in danger from aerial warfare
Here Goethe and Schiller are now lying in simple oak coffins. In his speech on the Goethe Year 1932, Julius Petersen, President of the Goethe Society from 1926 to 1938, praised the place as the “magnetic pole of all human memory”. A few years later, the prince’s crypt was threatened by the air war over Germany. In fatalistic defiance, the Goethe Society spoke out against an evacuation – if necessary, the mound of rubble should be inscribed. The ducal house, which was formally responsible, agreed to the transport of the poets’ coffins on condition that they would return later, but asked in vain for Carl August to be rescued.
Only the courageous intervention of the doctor Werner Knye prevented the planned destruction of the coffins stored in a medical bunker in Jena in April 1945; the “sanctuaries of the nation” should by no means fall into the hands of the enemy. For the American army, however, it was “a matter of honor” to bring the dead back to their place of origin with (albeit modest) military pomp, instead of robbing them. After the change of occupation in July, the Russians also laid wreaths and demonstrated that “the Red Army does not destroy cultural values, but is willing to protect them”.
Evidence of an earlier coffin opening
But it is presumably precisely those chaos of war in which the bones were damaged. Fritz Donges, whose bust of Schiller was on view at the Great German Art Exhibition in 1943, suspected that the coffins had been opened and asked to inspect the files in 1947. Indeed, there is evidence of such an intervention. The locks of Goethe’s coffin show signs of leverage, and a total of five hand and ankle bones are missing. Above all, however, the metal lining worked into the wooden coffin was opened with rough cuts. This is dramatic in that such a capsule not only serves to seal against the outside, but also slows down the process of decomposition.
The socially prominent form of crypt burial brings with it challenges that are seldom discussed: coffins that are permanently accessible to the public require care. Numerous conservation measures have therefore been documented for the Weimar Princely Crypt since the 1950s. In the Schiller year 1959, rot was noticed on the coffin of the jubilee, which was easy to get on with the wood preservative Xylamon. On this occasion, the bones, which had already been prepared in 1826, were preserved a second time and laid on synthetic textiles.
When Michail Gerassimow arrived from Moscow in 1961 to make a facial reconstruction based on Schiller’s skull, the assembled experts also inspected Goethe’s body. With his yellow silk shroud, the partially mummified skin and the insect-eaten skull, the poet was an impressive sight.