Grave encounters

Monuments

Grave encounters

Oscar Wilde’s grave with  kisses all over. Photo by author

‘The graveyards are full of indispensable men,’ said Charles de Gaulle. On a gray wintry afternoon with the mercury hovering near zero, we took the metro to the ancient, wooded and hilly part of Paris to visit ‘the last home on earth’ of distinguished luminaries of our times — writers, artists, singers, dancers, filmmakers, engineers, and such ‘indispensable’ people who have caught the world’s imagination and in many cases, changed history.

To remind visitors that all good things have to end, and ‘the uselessness of man’s vanity’, a plethora of funerary services — flowers, candles, caskets, memorials and even funeral catering, dot the path leading up to Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise’s formidable fortress-like entrance.

The ‘East Cemetery’ has the reputation of being one of the most visited graveyards in the world. At 118.6 acres, it is not the largest cemetery in Paris’ suburbs. Yet, it holds more than 3,00,000 buried people and thousands more who were cremated in the columbarium up on the hill. Many of these remains are of people who have significantly ‘enhanced’ France’s and the world’s life in some way, and are listed on boards in the cemetery and in tour guides.

As we studied the map, the stillness of the afternoon was interrupted by the sounds of crows from high tree perches in the thick forest of desolate vaults and tombs. They mixed with the sounds of shuffling feet, rustling dry leaves, whispered conversations, and sighs, soft sobbing or of someone blowing into a hanky. A cold wind shook the yellow-brown leaves from the trees and scattered them among the warmly clad tourists, conversing in various tongues.

Forever dear

Pere-Lachaise has steep, winding cobbled avenues of stark lime and dark brown chestnut trees with occasional beds of flowering and ornamental plants. The rising ground and rows of trees give the place an austere, ethereal ambience with its 19th century funeral monuments and humungous collection of funerary art — weeping angels, black cats, gothic chapels, broken-stringed musical instruments, abandoned white glove on a bench... Some of the monuments are ostentatious, some are unsightly and dilapidated, some are lovely.

The cemetery, named after Rev Father Francois d’Ais de la Chaize (1624-1709), Louis XIV’s confessor, was opened in 1803, thanks to Napoleon I. Until then, for reasons of health and hygiene, burials were forbidden in the city. Being inconveniently located and saddled with a shady reputation to boot, families hesitated to bring their dead here.
That is until a marketing genius hit upon the idea of making it both ‘fashionable’ and ‘desirable’ by transferring the remains of the legendary medieval theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and his clandestine love, Héloïse d'Argenteuil (1101-1164) to the new graveyard.

Today, the controversial star-crossed couple — a religious philosopher and a love-besotted nun, lie side by side in an elaborately got-up Gothic tomb. Around the grave were notes left by visitors offering support, praises and prayers to the legendary lovers of yore.

A tomb hugely popular among baby-boomers is the ‘sentimentally festooned’ resting place of the turbulent, restless songwriter, poet, writer, filmmaker and lead singer of The Doors, Jim Morrison (1943-1971). Fresh flowers, scented candles, notes of scribbled love and such abound on the tomb of the singer who gave us the hit ‘light my fire’. On our visit, a small group of Americans was discussing the man — “The tomb has been vandalised several times and a specially sculpted bronze bust has disappeared. Controversial in life, even more controversial in death, that’s Morrison!”

One of the first graves at the main entrance is that of author of ‘Gigi’, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Near her lies ‘Baron’ Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891), the city planner extraordinaire commissioned by Napoleon III for transforming ‘unsanitary, foul-smelling, dangerous, congested and dark’ Paris from its ‘medieval squalor’ into the magnificent ‘city of light’.

Hausmann is credited with the capital’s spectacular boulevards, grandiose arty monuments and magnificent parks. Today as I stood at the tomb of the man who created the new Paris, I thought of the criticism that follows him to the day. Charming Catherine Mazumdar who I had met at a party said the arrogant Haussmann destroyed old Paris, and its old charm. “If you want to see how Paris looked before the Baron, go to the Marais,” she said.

Wandering through the cemetery, we paused at some famous headstones — India’s Paris-born aviation pioneer/industrialist JRD Tata (1904-1993), musical genius Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), singer Édith Piaf (1915-1963), dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), opera singer Maria Callas, the builder of the Suez Canal Ferdinand de Lesseps who linked the Mediterranean and Red Sea and developed a ‘short’ route to India, founder of alternate therapy, homeopathy Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (1834-1904) who designed the Statue of Liberty, key spokesman for abolition of slavery, Victor Schoelcher (1804-1893) among other eminent people.

Some unusual tombstones stop visitors such as the one of romantic painter Theodore Gericault, reclining with brush and colours in hand, and below him, on a panel, is a mini version of his controversial work, ‘Raft of the Medusa’. Another one was of Victor Noire (1848-1870) handsomely attired in waist coat, boots and knocked off top hat just as he was at moment of his assassination. The journalist shot dead in the heat of a political dispute, had ‘a gigantic funeral, attended by 100,000, and caused a riot on the Champs-Elysées,’ writes author Tirza Vallois, ‘For some reason, this effigy became the object of a fetishistic cult who believed that caressing it would cure women of sterility. The shiny patch around the protruding phallic region of the bronze sculpture is the result of years of tactile devotion.’

Moving on, we pulled up at another crowd stopper — the art-deco memorial of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Despite the fact that in his later years, at the height of his career, the man had a highly publicised affair with Lord Alfred Douglas which scandalised Victorian Britain no end, the man had, and continues to have, a huge female following.

Evidence of this are the scores of red kiss imprints and love scribbles on his tombstone — ‘Here lies the best man who ever lived’. As dusk closed in on us, we realised that half a day was insufficient to cover the stunning necropolis and get to know, and reflect on the great personalities that lie beneath its dry leaf littered and mossy ground. But the short visit was enough to fill us with great excitement, sadness and a very haunting chill and had the mind in raptures.

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