Günter Grass: ‘When the time comes, we will rest on leaves’

An exclusive extract from the Nobel prize-winning author’s final work describes how he and his wife imagined their farewell

At long last, having discussed our joint project many times, testing and rejecting various ideas at the kitchen table, we had reached a decision; the master carpenter Ernst Adomait sat across from us. The conversation began over tea and cakes, hesitantly at first, but soon underway.

Adomait has worked for us for years. He’s built standing desks and bookcases, and various smaller items for my wife. We told him what we wanted, never defining it as our last will and testament. After looking through the French window into the summery, windless garden, he agreed to take the job and make the boxes. He suggested they be measured separately for length and width, and we agreed. He had no objection to our request for two different woods: pine for my wife, birch for me. The boxes would be of equal depth, but hers would be two metres 10 long and mine two metres. My box would be five centimetres wider, to match my shoulders.

When I said “not tapered toward the foot,” which was once standard and may still be customary, he nodded in agreement.

I mentioned Wild West films in the course of which this sort of plain carpentry grew in demand. My sketch on a paper napkin proved unnecessary; the idea was clear enough. The boxes would be finished by autumn. We assured him we were in no hurry, but laced the conversation with hints about our combined age.

The style of the handles was still under discussion. I wanted something in wood. My wife favoured strong linen straps. In any case, there would be four on each side, to match the number of our children. The way the boxes would be sealed was left open for the time being. The conversation was down-to-earth at first, and dealt with practical details, but soon turned almost cheerful. When I suggested setting the lids loosely on top – “after all, the weight of the earth will hold them in place” – or fastening them down with carpenter’s glue, Adomait permitted himself a quickly fading smile, then declared pine and birch dowels more suitable.

“A costly method,” he warned. Alternatively, screws could be inserted in carefully drilled holes. I favoured hammering in old-fashioned nails with solemnly resounding blows at a given signal. In the postwar years, I often put up gravestones in cemeteries while working as a stonemason, and once made a deal with a gravedigger: five Lucky Strikes for a good dozen hand-forged coffin nails; later, much later, they appeared as rusty assemblages in drawings, lying this way and that, a few crooked, each with its own shape. And every nail had a tale to tell from its past. Sometimes I added dead beetles lying on their backs, and bones large and small. In one drawing, nails and rope hinted at a death only humans could devise. Soft pencil, hard-line pen and ink drawings, all of them still lifes, a few found buyers intrigued by their cryptic nature.

Adomait seemed to follow my digressions more out of politeness than interest. Then we chatted about current affairs: the ludicrous rise in the price of petrol, the uncertain summer weather, the now-familiar bankruptcies. I set a bottle of mirabelle plum brandy beside the empty teapot and what remained of the cakes. “Just a small glass,” said the master carpenter, who still had to drive home in his truck.

By the time Adomait left, we’d decided on wooden dowels and rough linen handles on each side of the boxes. “We can count on him,” my wife said. “He has always delivered on time.” The interior decoration of the boxes hadn’t come up that afternoon, since it didn’t involve carpentry. The only thing we were sure of was that padded upholstery, cotton or down, was out of the question. That sort of expense might be customary in commercial coffins, but we weren’t looking for comfort.

It was only at breakfast, after my usual complaint that my mattress was too hard, and when the dishes had been removed and the tabletop was bare, that an idea came to me, somewhat vaguely at first, but soon assuming a clearer shape. I suggested that after the obligatory washing of our lifeless bodies, we be laid to rest on a bed of leaves, then covered with more leaves by our daughters and sons, using whatever Nature offered, according to the season. In spring, budding leaves would cover us; in summer, fruit trees – cherry, apple, pears and plums – could lend their lush green, mature abundance. Autumn, my preferred season, would make its brightly coloured offering. And dry, rustling leaves could deck our naked bodies in winter. The old walnut tree, the copper beech, the maple would provide variety. A handful of walnuts could adorn our leafy cover as an extra feature. Only the two chestnut trees outside our house, sickly for years, would be forbidden to add their rust-afflicted foliage. I also requested there be no oak leaves.

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