Fréjus, France

Fréjus, France
Aqueduc Romain

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cimetière Père Lachaise (by Lisa)

Despite several previous trips to Paris, I never made it to this famous cemetery. Nope, I never made the trek while I was a student--this despite my fondness for the Doors (preferring however, the poppy “Touch Me” over the whacked out “The Music’s Over”), my ability to score cheap wine and other party favors, and my ability to just hang out. Now that I’m here a month I have no excuse not to go, so when a crabby Irie and a hot August day coincided, I set off alone.

I knew this cemetery contained some “famous” people, French and non-French. For the non-French, ie Americans, the big draw seems to be Jim Morrison. Others, more musical, artistic, or literary types make the trek to pay homage to Colette, Molière, Proust, Seurat, Piaf and Bernhardt. I, worshipping no one, went as a student of the social sciences--curious how the French house their dead and more curious about the living who go to see them.

My map was a waste. While it gave a rough idea of where to find the famous, the cute little roads all through the cemetery (cobblestones of course!) went unnamed on my map. That turned out ok, as I stumbled on some things I had no idea I would find, and never found others, just wandering around. A hint for future visitors: there is a free map just inside the main gate at the info bureau and if there is a little tour, glom onto it for a bit and they will lead you to the famous, you can always drift in and out of a tour.

This is a packed cemetery. A prime real estate location in and of itself. In fact, there were several tombstones empty, just waiting for the arrivals, like Hawai’i beach front property waiting for the retirees. I was quite surprised at the recentness of some of the tenants. Sure, Henri Salvadore, the recently deceased Caribbean singer (try Chambre Avec Vue) makes sense. But who are these others? In the pictures, you can see new tombstones as shiny and sleek as a grand piano. In other pictures the entire stone has been obscured by moss. Other graves have been hurtled up by ingrowing roots. The funeral parlor across the street (convenient!) proudly stamps its name into the corner of the black marble but you know it’s just a matter of years before nature claims the stone. I was reminded of the Cities of the Dead of New Orleans. There are thousands of tiny houses (some not so tiny and quite ornate) called sepulchres. The family name was usually engraved on top and the doors are locked or rusted shut. Some contain little shrines, with pictures, seemingly 50 yrs old, of the family members, and it appears that the last visit may have been 50 yrs ago. Remarkably some doors were wide open, with nothing but cobwebs inside, as if the family had moved out. Some graves had lists of family members engraved in a progressive line upward, from the 1700s to the 2000s. Given the sparse available real estate I have to believe the bodies are stacked vertically too.

As for the visitors, not many, mostly French and in the tour group. The Italians made themselves known to me first by the language, and then I could spot them with the ladies’ glittery spike heel sandals picking their way through the cobblestones, while their dutiful husbands carried their patent leather purses. Ah, then the Americans. You can follow them and their overstuffed backpacks right to Jim Morrison. The middle aged parents dragging their prepubescent kids to this grave in some kind of nod to their own past and nostalgia, and the chain smoking (cigarettes!) kinda-hippies who were trying to set their own nostalgia, but had to wait for the “tourists” to leave. Morrison’s grave is the only site in the whole place to receive the star treatment of ugly metal barricades and a cemetery employee attendant. His tombstone shows age with moss-like drippings which are starting to obscure the name. The tomb is actually a tiny stone wall surrounding a patch of dirt strewn with cigarettes. No offerings of whiskey today, unless of course, the nearby guardien already helped himself. Reminded me a bit of a Dead show in the later years--grubby, smelly and a supervisor needed for the hangers-on. How does the observer change what she is observing? By observing does she become a participant? I hope not, I wanted to scream “I’m just curious! And I think this is really pathetic!”

The highlight of the cemetery was happening upon the numerous memorials to the victims of the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust. Each concentration camp had its own memorial, including Drancy, in France. Not many non-Europeans know that there were transitional camps in France, set up by the Vichy/Nazi partnership. There were also memorials to those Resistance fighters caught and executed. This area of the cemetery was even prettier than the rest. Maybe because of the shade, the flowers, the art work of the memorials themselves. Or maybe because I could hear live children playing in their neighborhood just over the cemetery wall.
Cimetière Père Lachaise photos


Anonymous said...

Lisa - thanks for the history lesson. The memorials to Dachau, Auschwitz, the French Resistance, etc. are very thought provoking. Maybe a little insight as to what political imbalance can lead to in a country...........

Anyhow, I'm curious if Rene' Descarte is buried anywhere near Jim Morrison? Or maybe you only thought you were at a parisian cemetary observing pilgrims....

Anyhow, keep posting. We are enjoying the cultural education.


ted and ruth said...

I liked hearing about your trip to the cemetery and some of the photos did indeed remind me of the crypts, or houses, on each side of a narrow street at a cemetery in New Orleans that we visited.

Hope your weather is better than here in Ashland. Yesterday Medford matched a record at 108 degrees and Ashland was pretty close.

I continue to enjoy your descriptions of your happenings.