She wakes early, usually at 6 a.m., and fetches the newspaper. A morning without Sudoku is not a morning worth facing. After she solves the puzzle, she takes her medication, eats two sandwiches with butter and jam and climbs back into bed. Once she's under the covers, Rosemarie Achenbach, aged 93, frees her laptop from under a crocheted blanket, and begins to write. She's working on a PhD thesis; her subject matter: the philosophy of death.
She lives alone in a suburb of Siegen in western Germany. Her house, which lies at the end of a road, is filled with photographs of family and weddings, books, oak cupboards, stained glass windows and curtains through which the morning sunshine filters through, illuminating her snow-white hair. Rosemarie Achenbach is a small woman. Dressed in a denim skirt and blouse, she's prone to giggling and starts to recite poetry when she runs out of things to say.
But, for her, death is more than just a PhD topic. 'Because I am so close to it, you really could not get any closer to it than I am, it is just the logical result.'
She was 84 years old when she started to write her PhD paper on death. Now, nine years later, she's still working on it. "You have to know your subject area," she says. "You can’t write nonsense." Achenbach reads a lot. She is focused at the moment on near-death experiences and quantum theory. But, for her, death is more than just a PhD topic. "Because I am so close to it, you really could not get any closer to it than I am, it is just the logical result." And then she starts to giggle.
She points towards the living room cabinet. "Go ahead, open it." And there, between Rosenthal porcelain, are stacks of pages labeled with such terms as "Brain," "War," "Hospice," "Illusion," "Spirituality," "Post Mortem," and "Dying." There are about 300 pages — both handwritten and typed. Another giggle escapes her. "Quite astonishing, isn’t it?"
Statements on death are, by their very nature, rather speculative. She knows that and even thinks that this is a good thing, comforting in a way, that you can’t know everything. But it is, nonetheless, something of interest to her. What is death? What happens when you die? Humans are the only beings aware of their mortality. Achenbach has been fascinated by that fact ever since she was young.
She usually goes to lectures and seminars at this time, driving to them in her Volkswagen Beetle. In the backseat is a dusty copy of Shakespeare’s drama Julius Caesar. Achenbach is able to recite a speech from it from memory. She does so while driving. "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them."
She does not travel all the way to the university in Siegen as it is too strenuous. Instead, she drives to a bus stop, goes to a kiosk to buy a Coke and waits for the bus. An acquaintance, roughly her age, comes up to her. The woman who approached her says later that she "feels like s**t" and shuffles off.
To Achenbach, all people her age seem old to her. Many of them just want to complain and talk about their aches and pains, she says. On our way to the university, we sit next to students with smartphones and stylish headphones over their gelled hair. But Achenbach does not want to complain, she wants to discuss things. She starts talking about German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who she says was obsessed with death. His links to the Nazi party do not sit well with her. Schopenhauer, she says, is much more interesting. He said that without the knowledge of death mankind would not philosophize — a statement she agrees with. Sartre is sensible because he saw death as a horrible experience. But Epicurus was oversimplifying things by saying that death is nothing that ought to concern us because when death arrives, we're already gone. "He is trying to fool himself," says Achenbach.
At the university
The University of Siegen is situated on a mountain and is a functional building from the 1970s with flat roofs and low ceilings. Achenbach shuffles into the Faculty of Philosophy, climbs the 24 steps up to room AR-HB 103/104 and waits for her course on "Thanatos and his enemies — the death wish in Freud’s social and cultural theory" to begin. The lecturer looks like the German actor Jürgen Vogel. He's wearing a t-shirt and chews gum. A wasp is buzzing against the closed window. There are four students in the room. After 30 minutes, the lecturer draws a diagram on the blackboard along with the words "Motive" and "Reason."
Achenbach was 18 years old when she started to study psychology, philosophy and psychiatry in Munich. The Nazis had just murdered the Scholl siblings at the time. She tried to study as much as possible but mostly remembers the bombs being dropped on the city at night, a loud whistling sound and the fear of death itself. After completing three semesters, she was sent to Poland for "labor services". It was a suicide mission, but she was not aware of this at the time. She then had to flee the invading Russians and the memories of that are still engraved in her brain.
After the war, she married a Protestant vicar, moved to Siegen and raised three children. She says she never had a single minute to herself and was forced to obey her husband. She often cried at night. It is a German life and a long life over which she had little control until her husband died in 2003. The next year, Achenbach traveled to Paris instead of visiting her children as she usually does. She strolled through the Louvre, ate croissants and baguettes, and took the city metro on her own for the first time. When she returned home, Achenbach wanted to do only one thing: get an academic degree.
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