Burying Herbert's Ashes in Berlin:
A Personal Reflection on the Interconnections between
the Personal and the Political, the Private and the Symbolic

by Peter Marcuse for the marcuse.org/herbert website,
July 22, 2003


Peter Marcuse in Berlin, July 2003 [photo: Harold Marcuse]
Herbert Marcuse was a philosopher, a German intellectual, an international political figure, and an American father and grandfather. We buried his ashes in the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof in Berlin last week. The ceremony itself was widely described in the newspapers, but through the differing lenses of each journalist's eyes, with some false assumptions and errors. Thus I would like to set down in writing my thinking and some of our feelings in returning Herbert's ashes to Germany.

My motivation was twofold: at once personal and political, since the two are inherently connected. I felt that the interweaving of the personal and the political in my fatherís life might be shown, symbolized, by what our family would see in and near Berlin on the trip to the burial. My father had a long and interesting life. From growing up in a prosperous German-Jewish family in Berlin, being drafted in World War I, joining a soldiers' council (Soldatenrat) at the end of the war and leaving it when it took in officers, joining the SPD and leaving it when its anti-revolutionary character became clear, studying German literature and then philosophy with Heidegger in Freiburg, turning to Marxism with his discovery of the early manuscripts of Karl Marx, going into exile both as a Marxist and as a Jew with the Frankfurt Institute in 1933 and moving with it to New York and then Los Angeles, establishing himself as a philosopher in the United States, joining the U.S. government in the war against fascism, becoming immersed in the exploration of psychoanalysis and Freudís metapsychology, moving after the war and my motherís death to Columbia, then Brandeis, then the University of California at San Diego, becoming an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam and a father-figure to the New Left and achieving international reputation with prominent talks and discussions in Berlin, Paris, and elsewhere, finally speaking at the Römerberggespräche in Frankfurt and then traveling to Starnberg at the invitation of Habermas, where he died of a stroke in July 1979. I wanted our relatives and children to know this personal history, and its background.

In dealing with my fatherís ashes, we had to deal with the dividing line between the personal and the political. At the time of his death in 1979, Ricky Sherover, his third wife (my mother, Sophie Wertheim, and his second wife, Inge Neumann, had both died of cancer) took it as a private affair. We had a small memorial ceremony in the woods in Starnberg but no public funeral. Herbert's body was shipped to Austria to be cremated and then sent to America. Ricky died in 1988. After 15 more years I felt that it was appropriate to "go public" with his death now. Originally, we thought simply of making the location of his ashes known (they had been kept privately in a funeral home in New Haven), but the project grew as we learned of the Dorotheenstädtischer Friedhof in Berlin and the possible interest of the Berlin Senate in making it an honorary gravesite.

My father argued that the personal and the political were inextricably interwoven for everyone, and that the personal was always political. There is no doubt about the connection in his life. He placed a high value on the private, as a sphere protected from the inroads of the dominant society, and the dividing line between the personal and the private is not so easy. I take the importance of the private to be the ability of a person to be sheltered, at his or her own discretion, from the unwanted outside.

Torrey Pines State Beach, bluffs
View of the bluffs at Torrey Pines State Park in California
Thus my father took his walks along the beach in Torrey Pines State Park near San Diego to be private; his thoughts and feelings there to be his own business. But if a television crew from Germany wanted to follow his dayís activities in his house from morning to evening, he had no objection--if it would help spread his ideas more widely. We felt the same way about the events around his burial; some things we wanted to keep private, our family alone, but other things we had no objections to being known more widely.

It turned out that there was unexpected interest by the media in the physical transaction with his ashes and urn that held them, so that (not at our desire or request, contrary to some reports, although with our consent) an independent film crew followed the urn on its trip to Berlin, a fancy Cadillac hearse was hired (again not at our request or even with our knowledge) to pick up the urn at the airport, etc.

For the more personal part of the burial, at the cemetery itself and immediately thereafter, I had hoped that the short walk with the urn to the gravesite would be just our family, with anyone else who wanted at a distance (it was after all not our private cemetery). In fact, others did crowd around. I said a few words, to make two points. As a materialist, to make clear that these were the ashes of my father's body, not 'Herbert', that we were burying (our bow to other traditions was to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for after all he was a Jew, and that played no small role in his life). And secondly, to thank the Berlin Senate for the designation of the burial site as an honorary grave, but to make it clear that, as to the German state, we felt it not a favor but simple justice that was done.

Sharing reminiscences after burying Herbert's ashes
Sharing reminiscences after burying Herbert's ashes [photo H. Marcuse]

After the
"communicative" talking over lunch after burying Herbert's ashes
Talking over lunch in the courtyard of the Brecht Haus. [photo: H. Marcuse]
brief burial we adjourned to the Literaturforum in the Brechthaus, next door to the cemetery, a serendipitous location, for my father always loved Brecht (they knew each other briefly in Los Angeles), and Brecht is buried in the same cemetery. We sat around in a circle exchanging reminiscences about Herbert. I started out with some limericks for the occasion, others spoke of him as a teacher, as a political figure, as a grandfather, as a friend, as a supporter. This kind of open informal sharing of experiences is common in the USA on such an occasion, but perhaps not in Germany. One German journalist associated it with Alcoholics Anonymous, which we feel was inappropriate. This sharing of personal reminiscences is one case where the private might have needed more protection, where the personal was misunderstood and thus misplaced in public. Then we had lunch and socialized, communicatively, as I think my father would have enjoyed.

Marcuse family at the Rosa Luxemburg memorial
Marcuse extended family at the Rosa Luxemburg memorial at the Landwehr-kanal in Berlin. [photo: Harold Marcuse]

For the more political part, I felt that the interweaving of the personal and the political in my fatherís life might be shown, symbolized, by what our family would see in and near Berlin in the days before the burial. So we did two things (a third was not foreseen as symbolic, but actually is too).

We, my family and I, (the independent film crew, and a reporter came along), went to the Rosa Luxemburg memorial at the Landwehrkanal, where her body, perhaps still alive, was thrown into the canal by right-wing ex-soldiers. The next day we went to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, in the company of a former inmate. The two places, the events they commemorate, seem to me the bookends around my fatherís life and work. Rosa Luxembug symbolized the hope for a democratic revolution, for a different and better world, with the working class leading the way, a hope which was then brutally repressed. Sachsenhausen represented the extreme of the horror of suppression, domination, and violence. It thus symbolized the life instinct and the death instinct, in concrete representation. Both Bruno Flierl, a superb architectural historian, and our son Harold, a historian of modern Germany with a book on the post-war history of Dachau, provided background and interpretation.

The Kaufhaus des Westens in Berlin, a temple of consumer society, founded in 1907
What could be seen, retroactively, as a third symbolic part of that political world with which my father dealt was a brief visit for one or two items at the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens, 'Department Store of the West'), which might be taken to symbolize that ability of the system to produce, and to seduce, about which my father wrote in One Dimensional Man and elsewhere.

Herbert lecturing at the FU Berlin in 1967 or 1968.

The most directly political part of the events was the symposium that the Philosophy Department of the Free University put together for the day before the burial, at which Angela Davis, our son Harold, and Axel Honneth were the featured speakers.
Poster for July 2003 Conference at the FU Berlin
Program of the July 2003 Marcuse conference in the Audimax of the FU Berlin
It took place in the same auditorium as the teach-in on The End of Utopia in July 1967 at which my father spoke, that the SDS and the student leadership of the university had organized.

Two panels discussed those 1967 events, as well as their aftermath and meaning. I raised the question of the relevance of what my father said then to today: whether the idea of the End of Utopia, in the sense that another world was indeed realistically possible, still held true today, whether the possibility of an end to exploitation and oppression, the possibility of full liberation in a personal as well as political sense, still is meaningful today. My concern was to point out that my father's ideas should not be historicized, and thereby made harmless and irrelevant for today. Discussion had to be limited, but perhaps more will take place in the future.

Nachgelassene Schriften, vol. 3Herbert's papers, vol. 2The more lasting legacy of my father, one that seems to me more important than these somewhat ceremonial and symbolic events, is the publication of his papers. He left behind enough unpublished writings, some very provocative, including interviews, articles, and letters to and from many famous personalities, to fill 16 volumes. About one-third have been selected for publication, through the energetic and competent work of Peter-Erwin Jansen in German (zu Klampen Verlag) and Douglas Kellner in English (Routledge). An Italian edition is also in preparation. I would rather think of my fatherís remains as being in these books, not in ashes in an urn.


Additional information:


prepared for the web by Harold Marcuse, August 3, 2003, formatting updated 5/27/05
note 7/29/09: The StadtVerfuehrer Berlin page on the cemetery links to this article.
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