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Oh, What a Knight to Remember : * Legends: One very weird tourist attraction--a dried-up corpse--is at the heart of a battle between a pastor and the mayor of a German village.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fight between the mayor and the preacher was bizarre to begin with, but the invasion this summer of the six would-be body-snatchers definitely pushed it into the Twilight Zone.

Home to about 130 burghers and one of Europe’s weirdest tourist attractions, this eastern village an hour from Berlin depends on a dried-up corpse for its survival. Even before East Germany threw open its borders, 150,000 visitors a year reportedly flocked here to gawk at Sir Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz of Brandenburg, whose remains mysteriously failed to decompose after his death 289 years ago.

“On a good weekend, the lines outside would be even worse than they were when the stores had bananas for sale,” recalls Peter Freimark, pastor of the Lutheran church that houses the infamous knight’s small, dank crypt.

“People are so fascinated because the whole thing is macabre, obscene, cruel, grisly and maybe even a little erotic--all those things dear to the German heart,” he says.

During the Communist era, the state managed the primitive tourist attraction and collected the modest entry fee, in turn paying the church a token amount to “rent” the crypt where von Kahlbutz lay in a glass-topped coffin. But now that the two Germanys have merged, the local church and City Hall are feuding over ownership of the natural mummy and his lucrative legend. The matter is expected to be resolved by the courts this fall.

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The preacher considers this an assertion of the church’s independence. Mayor Edmund Bublitz refused any comment with a terse: “It’s not funny anymore.”

(“That’s because he was embarrassed by all the publicity after he tried to kidnap the corpse,” notes the pastor.)

Von Kahlbutz had considerable entertainment value when he was alive, too. After being lanced in the left knee at age 24, he was forced to take early retirement from his jousting career and pursue other interests--fair maidens being high on the list. Von Kahlbutz is said to have fathered 30 illegitimate children in addition to his 11 heirs.

The red-haired nobleman also claimed the right to deflower all brides in his fiefdom, a prospect that particularly annoyed one shepherd’s fiancee, who refused the knight’s rights to the first night only to have her groom turn up dead in a field with his skull split. Lightning, suggested the knight. Von Kahlbutz was accused of murder but was freed after swearing in court that he was innocent.

“If I am the murderer, may it be God’s will that my body never decay,” he supposedly declared.

Twenty-nine years after von Kahlbutz’s death from natural causes at age 51, his family died out; the new feudal lord demanded that the knight’s clan be disentombed so he could claim the crypt as his own. He changed his mind when the crypt was opened and the leathery mummy was found inside, along with skeletons of two other family members. The lance scar on the left knee identified the perfectly preserved corpse as that of the Prussian knight.

Church records indicate that as early as the 1850s, a caretaker began collecting money to unlock the crypt and show people the mummy, dubbed “a biological miracle” until the Communists came along after World War II and changed the sign outside to read “a biological riddle.”

“Officially, there could be no such thing as miracles in a socialist state,” explains Freimark, who describes the tug-of-war over the body as a battle for independence by the church.

“They’ve always treated it like it was their property,” he complains. “The Communist authorities used to remove him without even asking and cart him off to East Berlin to be examined.”

The corpse weighs just 13 pounds. X-rays reportedly revealed all internal organs intact but dried up; however, they failed to explain the mummification. Theories vary. Some suggest external conditions in the crypt, perhaps even undetected radiation, permanently pickled von Kahlbutz, while others lean toward an organic cause. Arsenic poisoning has been ruled out.

Both sides in the dispute insist that they would use proceeds from crypt admission fees for good deeds. Freimark would like to build a nursing home and make sorely needed repairs to the 700-year-old stone church. The mayor has been quoted as saying he would earmark the money for community projects and the social welfare of the village’s citizens.

Under the Communist regime, Kampehl rarely reaped any benefits from the crypt’s coffers. Now, three restaurants have sprung up to sell sausages and beer to the tourists. But unemployment in the agricultural region is high as farming collectives collapse under the free-market system.

“Instead of wasting time and energy fighting each other, we should work with the church to surmount the economic and social difficulties,” Bublitz said in a letter to a local newspaper. He said the church nixed a proposal to set up a Kahlbutz curatorship.

Meanwhile, back at the crypt, even though the price has jumped to three marks (about $1.75), the “tour” remains unchanged. People crowd into the closet-sized crypt to hear a brief tape-recorded account of von Kahlbutz’s legend. There are no mummy souvenirs to buy and no body guards. The knight’s breast plate, helmet and lance sheath hang on the discolored wall; two cannonballs share the knight’s coffin for reasons the bored young ticket-seller is unable to explain.

“My father usually does this, and I’m just substituting,” she says. “In this kind of weather, I’d much rather be out at the swimming pool than sitting inside this thing all day next to him .”

Kampehlers enjoy telling gullible visitors that von Kahlbutz’s fingernails and hair still grow and that sightings of his ghost have caused fatal automobile accidents on a bridge leading out of town.

But the most excitement came last month, when, according to Freimark and several townsfolk who live or work near the church, the mayor secretly plotted to remove von Kahlbutz from his crypt and install him in a freshly renovated room at the fire station, which is indisputably city property.

“This one evening we noticed six strangers hanging around outside the crypt,” says Reinhard Kort, a 36-year-old innkeeper across the street who cheerfully admits he would be out of business if Kampehl didn’t have von Kahlbutz.

That same day, according to Freimark, the mayor was addressing the state parliament, attempting to push through a proposal to relocate the mummy. When that bid failed, the mayor came by and told the six strangers to go home, that there would be no work that night.

The disgruntled crew accepted an invitation from Kort and some friends to have a few beers. “That’s when they admitted that they were unemployed and had been told to report here for a job they were told nothing about,” Kort says. “Only when it fell through did they find out that they were supposed to have carried von Kahlbutz’s coffin to the fire station. They all swore to us they wouldn’t have touched him, though.”

If it were aggressively promoted, Kort figures, “at least 20,000 people could live off von Kahlbutz. I’ve seen people wait three hours in line to see him.” He daydreams about a sort of medieval Solvang with the corpse as its centerpiece.

An American offered to buy the mummy as far back as the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Subsequent overtures from Japan have also been rebuffed.

A satirical East German magazine even sent an investigative reporter out after the revolution to see how greedy Kampehl had become. Posing as an American millionaire, the reporter handed out phony business cards and separately offered the mayor and the pastor $3 million for von Kahlbutz, promising to replace the display with a copy. Both refused the bait.

On this one point they were apparently in agreement:

The belongs here.


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