Alone time? Spend it with the dead--welcome to the largest yard in Paris.After a previous nights phone conversation in which I clung to the received phrase, how lucky you are to wake up tomorrow and be able to say, what shall I do today?! I found myself the next morning awake, and wondering, yeah what am I doing today? I often selfishly forget how terribly lucky I really am to have this time in Paris, a luck that would be of devastation if ever regretted in future memory as being ill spent. I vowed, in blood, months ago to never let slip a lacklustre day whilst in Paris. Erm, yesterday doesn't count. Anyways. The day dawned yet again with the bizarre February spring weather--no groundhogs shadow in Paris--spring has, at least for this week, arrived. 6:30pm is the suns newly extended curfew, all traces of clouds have migrated east, the trees are budding, and Snow Whites friends have abandoned her for the nests of Parisian arbres. A switch-out of the coat; 12 degrees have been the highs, (for you Americans out there, that's about 54F). Sun: What indeed shall I do today? Why, clearly it must be to get lost in the largest graveyard in the city--to the father they all return, le pere, who here is dubbed Lachaise.
As you are aware, there are three main cemeteries in Paris, Cimitère de Montmartre, Cimitère du Montparnasse, and Père Lachaise (there are also 17 smaller ones). The later, however, is visited by tourists the world over on a much greater scale. Due rather shallowly to its many celebrity residents. A few being Balzac, Frederic Chopin, the artists Jacques Louis David and Eugène Delacroix, Edouard Daladier, Edith Pilaf, Saint Exupery, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, cough Jim Morrison, and the over 300,000 other dead bodies lying behind the high stone walls of the yard who in some fashion or another were just as important to at least one human on this planet during their life as the rich and famous were.
Père Lachaise is a park; though a final resting ground for the deceased, it carries a somewhat whimsical and relaxing charm that never once ignites the concept of eerie poltergeists. Perhaps it is the weather. Perhaps it is the quiet solitude offered by the rows of stoic grave stones and crypts. Surprisingly one does not find feelings of melancholy in Lachaise, but instead relaxation and solidarity. No I am not calling a graveyard a spa, but there is something in Lachaise that overpowers the classic concept of death, death is not a horror movie here, no, it's much more antique.
Graveyards are history capsules. And this one--like most things in Paris, appears to have been doped-up by tinkerbell. There is no shame of morbidity to stroll through a graveyard peering into the names of history. While stumbling upon the epitaphs and names of those who have already lived through it all, already done life, one can't help but drop into musings on who they were and what they did during their time in this city they passed on to me. I recognize surnames and create factious connections to their possible relations. La Famille Huet, could that be Henri's family? La Famille Blanc, is that you Louis? Why look there's Haussman! A note of interest is that the majority of those names of eye catching familiarity were those in connection to a name of a metro station.
I possess an awkward fascination with the namings of the 300+ metro stations in the city, but that is for a much later post. Boissy, Parmentier, Felix Faure, Raspail, Monge, Musset! These are they? The namesakes for the stations whose titles I hold under my breath and at the tip of my tongue silently counting them down in order as they pass until the finally the static daily route leads to my own home station--their names are emblazed on walls and on maps and in hastily scribbled directions to bars, but these men did exist, and in high enough esteem to be awarded such a curious tribute. Oh how I wish I could interrupt their slumber, just for a minute to inform them of their monstrous achievement in being honored as one of the metro stations, turning their names into meaningless parts of modern Parisian vocabulary. When Paris expands, just you wait and see, there will be m° station Mallory, found at the end of line 64.
There are no 'ancient' bones to be found in Père Lachaise (aside from the supposedly replanted remains of Molière, La Fontaine, and Peter Abilard and Heloiise,) which is due to the graveyards nineteenth century birth, a factoid consistent with the presence of the dead metro-honorees: twentieth century metros, twentieth century honorees. The graveyard itself was named in honor of Lachaise (Francois de la Chaise 1624-1709), who indeed was a père, a Jesuit no less, and a preferred confessor to Louis XIV. The site of the his chapel is the location of the cemetery today. At the time, the location was outside of Paris, but with the expansion of the cities borders at the crowning of Napoleon, Père Lachaise chapel was incorporated into the city and officially converted into a graveyard. At the turn of the nineteenth century, new graveyards were commissioned on the outskirts of the city after the closure of the old burial sites whose inhabitants were uprooted and transplanted to the city's miles of underground catacombs for sanitary reasons.
Real estate in Lachaise is prime, and unless one possesses an inherited family plot, a popular face, or a large some of cash, a burial is without a doubt out of the question. There is, however, a columbrian that houses the ashes of thousands of previous Parisians, and an extensive monument of walls displaying the name plaques of the cremated. Found scattered throughout the graveyard are myriad monuments and tributes to wars, groups, and movements, movements that seem to all be of a leftist thread. The Mur des Fédérés commemorates the graves of the 147 Communards (last defenders of the Paris commune) assassinated in 1871. Another monument in commemoration of liberal resistance is that to the memory of the French Brigadists who died during the Spanish Civil War. There is also found the inscription A la mémoire de tout les Espagnols mort pour la liberté for the 25,000 killed in the resistance.
My impressions for the graveyard are those of awe; though most likely to be perceived as odd, it is quite enjoyable to get lost in the alleys of graves on a sunny day when the light pierces through at crackling angles to stream beams of light through dust particle strewn air. It will be reiterated: a walk in the park. People are sunning, reading, (eating? I forgo the picnic as a bit too much) staircases upon staircases. The old woman is crying, happy tears of remembrance I assure myself. The volume of couples strolling hand-in-hand is in competition with Trocadero. Old, young, le fete de St. Valentine is around the bend, Paris will be brimming with star crossed lovers as the acclaimed city of Love. What better tribute than to bring love to the dead, these people have passed to dustiness and have taken nothing with them but the names and engraved messages of their loved ones--a romantic reminder of really what counts in life.
The cobble stones are much to brutal to navigate with the head up, a tripping history propels me to traverse the lanes atop the stone path borders like a tightrope walker. The statues are still plays--who are these brothers linking arms? A boy and his dog, who lies below the boy or the dog? Ever present smell of--chlorine? Fresh graves. A notre ami Phillipe, piles of flowers. A graveyard is a flower show to the living. It wasn't until my way toward the gate as the sun slipped out after my three hours of walking the tombs that I finally thought of death--no, not about death, but rather why I hadn't even thought of death once that day, my own or anyone else's. Three hours in a graveyard lapse without the thought of death--the Parisians did it correctly, they built a real graveyard, one that does not romanticize death but instead provides clues and reminders of life.
Laugh. Laugh as one leaves a graveyard? Yes. The dead I am sure miss the resonance of such tones, in reflection if I were dead it would be among my favored ten sounds missed. A recent film awarded me this quote: I used to worry, but after a little research, I discovered that 10 out of 10 people die.