a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

Max Weber’s grave

by Pamela Klassen

Photograph of Max Weber's grave, courtesy of the author
Photograph of Max Weber's grave, courtesy of the author

Max Weber, the man who christened the spirit of capitalism, is buried in the Heidelberg Friedhof (literally, peace-field). Plots of land zoned, packaged, and sold for the dead and their material commemoration, cemeteries are repositories of spirituality as well as sites of remembrance and recreation. Cemeteries are also spaces of remarkable aesthetic diversity, as ornate and simple grave markers display epochal style, personal taste, and religious affiliation. A tall stone stele, Max Weber’s grave stands in a wooded enclave in the middle of the Heidelberg cemetery. It is situated not far from the Jewish section of the Friedhof, which predominantly houses the graves of Heidelberg’s Jews who died before the rise of the Nazis. Several of those resting there possess the surname of Marx.

The front of Weber’s gravestone bears the names of both Max and his wife Marianne. On either side of the stone are two brief epitaphs. The left side reads Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis, meaning everything temporal is only a likeness, or all that is transitory is only a metaphor. The right side declares Wir finden nimmer seinesgleichen which means we will never find another like him.

These two epitaphs nicely complicate Weber’s life. On the one side there is the great theoretician whose equal will never be found, and on the other there is the undercutting declaration that all reality is, well, theoretical.

We can be reasonably sure that the right side was chosen by Marianne to describe Max, since she believed firmly in her late husband’s greatness and worked tirelessly in the last thirty-four years of her life to ensure the posthumous publication of his life’s work. The inscription on the left side is more interesting, however, since it expresses a view rooted in German metaphysical speculation unlike the more conventional gravestone inscribed with biblical citations. Since Marianne was the one who got to choose the inscription, we can’t know whether it was Max’s choice too, but it would certainly have been a line familiar to him. In German, the phrase Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis conveys rich cultural references. It originates in Goethe’s Faust and has been incorporated in such musical compositions as Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Mahler’s Symphony No. 8.

When I first read Weber’s grave, what came to my mind was not Faust but the American version of such neo-Platonist expressions, namely Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science. Eddy’s view that matter was error worked along a similar vein, encouraging mortal humans to recognize the spiritual truths behind transitory existence in which the body was only an illusion. This conjunction of high culture and popular nineteenth-century spiritual imaginations is not entirely accidental, of course, since the spiritual was kept in play by an active circulation of theories, speculation, and doctrine that incorporated German professors, writers, and cultural theorists, as well as North American professors, innovators, and impresarios. Encompassing psychologists such as Gustav Fechner and William James, as well as Protestant-bred leaders and clergy such as Mary Baker Eddy, Elwood Worcester of Boston’s Emmanuel Movement, and the lesser-known Canadian Archbishop Frederick Du Vernet, early-twentieth-century speculation about spiritual realities was fed by intersecting streams of religious experience, philosophy, biblical study, and pioneering theorists of religion. Like Max Weber.

These thinkers continue today in their books, and as monuments to certain amalgamations of thought, culture, and biography. As material bodies, they came to a perishable end marked by the solidity of their memorials in stone, granite, or metal. A haunting reminder of religious pasts and mortal futures, cemeteries persist as zones of spiritual mixing of the dead and the living, of the Christian and the Jew, of the scholar and the saint, capable of spooking even the most disenchanted of minds.