Père-Lachaise Cemetery

In 1804 the City of Paris secured 109 acres to establish Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

At the time it was not considered what one might call “a fashionable address” and there were few takers, so management employed a shrewd marketing strategy by removing a few famous remains to the site which then lay at the fringe of Paris.

It seems that the aspiration to be close to celebrity (even in death) is not a new thing, and when with great publicity the remains of La Fontagne, Molière and then Abelard & Heloise were disinterred and brought to be here buried anew, there was a steady increase in applications for a burial plot here beside the good and the great.

Estimates vary about the number of people actually buried within the 44 hectares (110 acres) of modern day Père-Lachaise Cemetery. There are said to be more than 1 million, with more whose ashes are stored in the Columbarium – and still more whose bones are in the Ossuary, probably bringing the total closer to 3million.

For those who prefer to stroll downhill than labour upwards, the entrance from Gambetta Metro has a small doorman’s cabin where you can ask for a free map and you can wander as you please, ever downhill through the avenues…

…or if you have made notes of the sections where the person you seek is buried then perhaps you will wander between the graves until you find it.

Before leaving home I had made an extensive list of the people buried at Père-Lachaise Cemetery for whom I had an interest. I had duly sorted the names by Division, thinking things would be a bit more straight-forward than they proved.

This is part of the charm of the place, for there seems to be just a semblance of order in how things are laid out.

It seemed a bit of a jumble and on a hot summer day under the deep blue sky of early morning I became so distracted with the things I wasn’t seeking that I gave up on my list and just let the pathways lead me on through the monuments.

As I entered from the entrance closest to the Gambetta Metro I passed World War I memorials to Yugoslavians…

..and Italians, who died fighting “for France and the liberty of their country”.

By contrast it was sad to see the decay on what must be “in perpetuity” memorials where there was no one to tend the site.

The beautiful stained glass is often broken…

..and once grand mausoleums have been broken into, with the elements leaving the interior dirty and scattered with the leaves and dust of years.

It made me quite sad to see the original care undertaken as a result of ego, family pride, or in the madness of grief, now left to fade over the years.

It reminded me of the transitory nature of life, but as the American Duwamish Indians believe, perhaps:

There is no death, just a change of worlds

These memorials in Père-Lachaise Cemetery are but beautiful monuments to lives lived and passions exhausted.

Perhaps a cemetery is more for the living than the dead, a place to focus the disorderly, unsettling feelings of loss, or to mark the riches gathered in a lifetime – or a family of lifetimes.

In my perception of life, when you die the real richness of your life is in the colour and vibrance, the opportunity and the encouragement, the smiles, the happy stories and the tender thoughts you leave in the lives of those who live on.

Of course some memorials seen designed to be the last great statement of a person’s sense of his own importance, like this “mine is bigger than yours” towering monument of Louis Félix-Auguste-Beaujour politician and diplomatic envoy to the U.S.A..

Some monuments are tributes to the love of friends and admirers, like the grave of Auguste Blanqui, safely interred in perpetuity by grace of public subscription.

Not being French, this was my introduction to Auguste Blanqui.

On my return home I found that he was a man ahead of his time. In the mid 1800s he was a powerful advocate of “one man:one voice” equality, of equal rights for women and for the abolition of child labour. In his lifetime he was imprisoned, exiled, imprisoned again and finally pardoned. He was elected deputy of Bordeaux but his election invalidated.

Auguste Blanqui influenced the structure of France and when he died, his funeral hearse was followed by thousands. Streets named in his honour are in the 13th Arondissement in Paris, several French cities and in Quaregnon, Belgium.

Père-Lachaise Cemetery is a place for every nationality, with Chinese graves reminding the visitor of the large Chinese population in Paris.

As has frequently been the custom throughout the ages in Europe, grave space proved to be a diminishing resource, so one purchased not a “Final resting place” but according to the payment, the grave was available to hold the remains of the deceased for a fixed period.

If the lease was not renewed by relatives or beneficiaries, the bones were disinterred, labeled and placed in an ossuary or bone storehouse.

Where a family plot has been purchased in perpetuity, it appears that it gives the right for relatives to join their ancestors within the same grave – and in this case, perhaps even the family dog.

One has the right to be buried in Père-Lachaise Cemetery if one dies in Paris, or lived there – but space is at a premium and there is a waiting list, as it is a popular cemetery – and the most visited one in the entire world.

When there is no one to tend the grave, the elements take over, and the contrast between those whose loved ones are still able to care for the grave…

…and those that don’t, made a sad contrast.

In some cases, the light against stained glass is the only colour still remaining in mausoleums in which once regular floral tributes would have been placed in spotlessly maintained chapels the size of a phone box.

Some marble statues have been placed behind clear protective walls, and the reflection of the surrounding trees and monuments make them appear to be hovering beyond reality on the cemetery hillside.

Despite my careful research and planning, it turned out I found but few of those I sought but instead many whose histories also made an impression on me.

My list of graves to seek included that of Guillaume Apollinaire who was as revolutionary to poetry as was his friend Picasso to painting, creating poems whose typewritten form created imagery of its own – a drunk man, the Eiffel Tower.

Apollinaire formed his poems to be startlingly original, words grouped into groups and the groups making patterns, use of things overheard, slang, and a lack of punctuation causing you to explore the options of meaning within the words. I wonder if the later works of e.e.cummings drew from Apollinaire.

As an art critic, Apollinaire was among the first to promote Cubanism. Perhaps it touched a chord in his own ability to conceptualise relationships in different ways from most of his peers. This thought-provoking quote of Apollinaire reveals a thoughtful interpretation of something that might be in English called “a blinding flash of the obvious”: that thing that once stated amazes you that you had not thought it before. I had used this one in my workshops on creative solutions:

When man wanted to make a machine that would walk

he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg

As with the many others I set out to find, I never did find Apollinaire at Père-Lachaise Cemetery.

I shall have to come back.

It is possible to take tours of the cemetery, as do many of the thousands who come annually to this quiet section of the 20th Arrondissement.

It is no doubt an informative way to see Père-Lachaise Cemetery and learn the stories behind particular graves but like myself, many others prefer the adventure of individual discovery.

Having a list is a good start – but the fascination of the things you discover instead seems to lead you to just wander from one section to the next, checking each time for the grave of those whom you seek but not being over-zealous about finding it.

I was pleased, however, to have found Oscar Wilde’s tomb. I cannot call it his final resting place, for despite the signs at every entrance reminding visitors that this is a cemetery and to please respect the memory of those who are here interred…

…one has to think that the visitors to Oscar Wilde’s tomb which left these marks, as with that of Jim Morrison of “The Doors”, come more to celebrate their own views of themselves than honour the dead.

In an attempt to protect the surface from the graffiti and lipstick kiss marks that proliferated, the Père-Lachaise administration has had to erect a thick clear synthetic wall around Oscar Wilde’s beautifully sculptured vault, inside which are also the remains of his devoted friend the wealthy Canadian art dealer and collector Robert Ross.

It is an ironic reflection of Oscar Wilde’s comment that

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative

…that the graffiti and ‘follow-the-leader’ lipstick kisses are so lacking in originality.

Jim Morrison’s grave has been such a detractor to the respect for the dead, with needles, broken bottles and other vestiges of wild celebrations around his grave from nocturnal break ins, that the grave was essentially “taken into protective custody”. I had read accordingly and it did not draw me to it.

Amongst others on my list of graves to find was Mademoiselle George, more popularly known simply as Joséphine – Napoleon’s famous mistress (and mistress also to Alexandre I of Russia), Zénobe Gramme who invented the dynamo, George Bizet, and the famous gourmet chef Brillat Savarin whose legacy lives on in many a kitchen.

I enjoyed reading that Savarin told a story of a wine-loving man offered a plate of grapes for dessert who pushed them aside saying “I am not accustomed to take my wine in pills”.

On this trip I found none of the above!

I had also wanted to, but didn’t find the grave of François Arago, who has one of the rings of Neptune named after him, plus craters on both the moon and mars. This remarkably inventive man was a lifelong friend of the great geographer Humbolt and one of the first to study electro-magnetic currents and optics. His measurement of the meridian arc of the earth (the story of which would make a fine adventure movie) is the basis of the metric system of lengths.

François Arago was also a formidable astronomical researcher in solar corona and planet measurement and developed a theory of interference of light causing the twinkling of a star.

Later in life elected to government, Arago held the joint portfolios of Marine and Colonies, and of War, and within his tenure improved naval rations, abolished floggings, and was instrumental in the abolition of slavery in the French colonies.

Although not finding the grave of François Arago, I did find the grave of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who was also on my list.

In its elegant simplicity the memorial to Ingres reflects the neoclassical style of his own works.

I had expected more angels within the extensive terraces of Père-Lachaise, but there were surprisingly few.

There was a cherub piccolo player…

..and an angel watching over this well-tended grave whose inferred story touched me.

Here is remembered the 18 year old wife of Robert Calvet, Lucienne Calmettes, killed during the liberation of Paris in 1944.

Still, after all those years, someone looks after the grave of the attractive girl whose photograph shows her forever young.

I didn’t go inside the Columbarium where the ashes of Isadora Duncan, Maria Callas, Max Ernst and the jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli have their niches.

The crematorium built in 1894 is a tribute to neo-Byzantine style…

… but for me its setting was best viewed from below.

I did find the grave of Albert Carré who died in 1938, and of his wife Marguerite, the French soprano.

Albert Carré was the hub of Parisian theatrical and music life during his life: musical writer, producer and progressive theatre manager. He was also a secret agent working for the 'Deuxième Bureau' and during World War I was largely responsible for influencing Alsace towards France when they were still adjoined to Germany.

Almost by accident I came across the memorial to René Lalique whose art deco style of crystal made him famous and built a business which remains an icon to this day through the artistic and business talent of three generations of the family.

I always thought it a fascinating play of chance that a man whose name is synonymous with the finest designs in crystal should be educated first at the Paris School of Decorative Arts and then at the Crystal Palace School of Art in London.

Appropriately, René Lalique’s tomb is a statement of timeless simplicity.

There are more formally presented corners of Père-Lachaise Cemetery…

…and some tranquil areas that seem more attuned to nature.

Not all the monuments in Père-Lachaise reflect the fact that the remains of the named person lie below.

This lovely monument is to Victor Schölcher, a French Abolitionist from Alsace who devoted his life and the considerable fortune inherited from his porcelain factory to the freedom of slaves, being three times a member of the French legislative Assembly for Martinique.

Such was his international influence and the impact of his life that his remains were removed from here and reinterred at the Panthéon.

Such is the power of the hope of renewal of life that the rather curious memorial to Allan Kardac, the “father” of Spiritualism is one of the memorials of Père-Lachaise most bedecked with living flowering plants.

Allan Kardac was actually his “pen-name”. His given name was Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivai.

A lady was busy ensuring all the plants on his grave had water and that all dead blooms were removed to enable the arrival of the next, reflecting the statement above his tomb: “Unceasing birth, death, rebirth – that is the law”.

Leaving Père-Lachaise Cemetery by the main gates I was thoughtful about the compression of so much fascinating history represented in this lovely “interesting place” of Paris.

It would be easy to spend several days within the walls against one of which 47 defenders of Belleville district of Paris were executed in 1871 when the Communards were overwhelmed after the “Bloody Week” of civil strife.

As I mused in the summer sunshine, a carhorn beeped and arms waved at me from both sides. My ride had arrived.

As is the way with adventures, I had come to Paris this trip to see my friend Lisa Lowell, the talented singer from New York (here is the link to her website http://www.lisalowell.com/) and ended up being kindly adopted by her co-performer in Paris concerts, the talented guitarist and French singer, Sofai – and they whisked me off in her car to the Palace of Vincennes.

As we wove with the characteristic rapidity of a French driver towards Vincennes, my mind again turned to the writing of Apollinaire, remembering why I had sought his grave.

Now and then it's good to pause in our pursuit of happiness

and just be happy

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