Death in Paris
Every nook and cranny in Paris invites discovery and so do the cemeteries. Andrea Black inspected tombstones, mausoleums and graves.
Any visitor to Paris will feel the palpable joie de vivre. The city is so very much alive: cafes tables spill out on the street where patrons sip wine and enjoy the city’s ambience and in summer couples dance along the banks of the Seine. But the city of light has an equal passion for death; lost poets, artists and thinkers who rest in elegantly ornate cemeteries are revered. After all, ‘We die only once, and for such a long time,’ wrote the French playwright Molière who died in 1675, but later became the first person to be buried at Père Lachaise cemetery in 1804.
The French and tourists alike seek refuge down the cobblestone lanes and manicured gardens of Cimetière du Pere Lachaise where some of the mausoleums look like mansions on the hill.
‘To be buried in Pere Lachaise is like having mahogany furniture,’ wrote Victor Hugo (he’s at the Pantheon mausoleum now). There amongst the 47 hectares lie the likes of Edith Piaf, Balzac, Bellini, Colette, Delacroix, Modigliani and Proust. An art deco winged messenger marks Oscar Wilde’s tomb, the inscription once read ‘given by a lady as a memorial of her admiration of the poet’ before being scratched off and defaced.
Wedged up against Count Antoine Français de Nantes (1756-1836) who may wonder what all the commotion is above him, is the grave of The Doors’ Jim Morrison. As the passing parade stands in hushed reverence clutching flowers for the Lizard King – who died in the bathroom of his rented Parisian apartment in 1971 – a nonchalant pussycat sits nearby licking its nether regions.
At Pere Lachaise, it’s the life-sized statue of the 19th century journalist Victor Noir that is the most intriguing. He was shot by Napoleon Bonaparte’s great nephew after being caught carousing with his wife. Over the years his tomb has become a symbol of love and fertility. His hat is filled with love notes and legend has it that if you rub his manhood, you are in for a better chance of falling pregnant. As such, his groin remains permanently polished.
While Cimetière de Montmartre, built in the hollow of a quarry in the north of Paris is definitely worth visiting, I wanted to make haste to pay respects to the fluffier kind at the Cimetière des Chiens just past the city limits.
Amongst the 3000 beloved pets that are resting in peace are live cats who guard the dearly departed. Here lies Hollywood star Rin Tin Tin, who was rescued from the trenches during WWI and brought to Tinsel Town. After a long movie career, he died at 16 before being returned to his native soil. Elsewhere a gravestone has a photo of a happy looking spider monkey named Kiki with the moving inscription underneath ‘Sleep my dear you were the joy of my life’.
Step below the city of Paris where an underground labyrinth of skulls, clavicles and femurs can be found on a self-guided tour of the Catacombs. Before you descend the spiral staircase into darkness, you will spy the sign with the somewhat dire warning `Stop! This is the empire of death’, as well as being the empire of hell for claustrophobics! Through the tunnels, kilometres of bones from more than five million souls removed from the overcrowded cemeteries in the late 1700s and grouped according to parish, line the walls.
Across the road from the entrance of the Catacombs is Cimetière du Montparnasse where singer Serge Gainsbourg is buried. His headstone is festooned with dead flowers, empty whisky bottles (he liked a drink) and lipstick kisses (he was a notorious lover whose dalliances included Brigitte Bardot before marrying Jane Birkin).
When Gainsbourg died, aged 62, in 1991, president François Mitterrand called him ‘our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire…he elevated the song to the level of art’. Many have scrawled Je T’aime across the slab of cold stone – which in this case has double meaning, not only was he well-loved, that was also the title of his most celebrated song. A framed picture of Serge looks on, unamused.
Montparnasse Cemetery is also home to writers, thinkers and lovers: Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are buried side by side, their graves strewn with garnets of metro tickets. Baudelaire and Man Ray reside here too. Walking these peaceful tree-lined streets paying homage to Parisian greats seems so tranquil until I look up and see a cavalcade of mourners around a coffin covered with fresh flowers and realise that this is not a museum, it is indeed an operating cemetery. The innocent enchantment breaks and the mood turns sombre; at this close distance the dead become an affront to the living, it’s all too real. I retreat to the nearest cafe and order a glass of Sancerre and toast the dearly departed, both recent and long gone. Now, it’s time to dance. •
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