IN PERPETUITY AT PÈRE LACHAISE
I hear a bell. Its persistent peal floats over the trees and echoes off the stones. "Does that ringing mean something?" I ask. My friend starts walking, saying over her shoulder "It's time to go. We don't want to get locked in!"
"Definitely not." I think to myself. Visiting the City of the Dead, as Paris' largest cemetery Père Lachaise is known, on a sun dappled afternoon is one thing. Being trapped behind the enormous entrance gates for the night is quite another.
When the cemetery was established in 1804 by Napoleon I, it was well outside the city walls. Today the 109-acre site is a five minute walk from my friend's apartment in the 20th Arrondisement and a favourite destination for a peaceful, contemplative saunter. As nineteenth century novelist Honoré Balzac said, "I rarely go out, but when I do wander, I go to cheer myself up in Père Lachaise." He is also buried here.
Some clever nineteenth century marketing of the perpetual concessions for plots was necessary to attract occupants. As the land was once owned by Father Francois d'Aix de la Chaise, the Jesuit sounding "Père Lachaise" was chosen as the cemetery's name. Remains of some famous dead were relocated for some caché. Twelfth century ill-fated lovers Abélard and Héloise are in a spectacular neo-Gothic tomb in the oldest section. In 1817, the bones of dramatist Molière and writer La Fontaine were moved here as was Louise de Lorraine, widow of King Henri III. Famous or rich or royal or not, or if you died in Paris, a Père Lachaise plot could be yours.
Tree lined cobblestone lanes meander amongst thousands of tombs. Some are simple, others grandiose, many in varying degrees of disrepair. Headstones tilt, crypt roofs collapse and gates rust. A jumble of worn, leaning memorials contrasts with the gleaming glass and shiny marble of the new. Stained glass chapel windows illuminated by the afternoon sun are counterpoints to the stone walls and dead vines entwined on a chapel door. Blooming shrubs and bright flower bouquets add hits of colour. Thousands of trees create a shady canopy in summer.
I am moved by the dramatic monuments to the WWII deportees and resistants. The statuary is stark, haunting, and brutal. The Mur des Fédérés (Wall of the Federalists), against which 147 Communard insurgents were massacred in 1871, still bears bullet scars. Those shot are buried in a mass grave at its base. While walking amid memorials marking tragedy and death, I unexpectedly find a peacefulness here.
There are many popular "residents" which millions pay homage to each year. Edith Piaf, the "little sparrow" born in the 20tth Arrondisment, has plenty of long stemmed red roses left for her. She is just down the hill from Oscar Wilde, who claimed to "be dying beyond his means" in Paris. The plexiglass protecting his tomb is covered with lipstick hearts and kisses. A group of youngsters surreptitiously parties next to the cordoned off grave of The Doors singer Jim Morrison. Flowers, flags, and musical instruments festoon the base of Polish composer Chopin under the supervision of a statue of Euterpe, the muse of music.
Other statuary ranges from the predictable weeping angels and chubby cherubs to the bizarre winged skulls on magician E. Robertson's tomb. I cannot decide whether the bronze figure on the tomb of nineteenth century Belgian writer and poet George Rodenbach is climbing into or struggling out of the grave.
Some are more famous in death than they ever were in life. Victor Noir, a young nineteenth century journalist, is memorialized by a life size bronze effigy depicting how he lay after being shot by a cousin of Napoleon III. Women wishing for fertility have rubbed a certain well-endowed body part and made it gleam against the verdigris of the rest of the statue.
A plot surrounded by potato plants is my favourite discovery at Père Lachaise. Potatoes left on the rim of the tombstone are a fitting tribute to agronomist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier. In the late 1700s, he promoted the potato as a food source. Until that time, the potato was considered only fit for animal feed. Parmentier persisted with his campaign and the subsequent planting of potatoes helped stave off starvation for many Europeans.
Our amble amongst the long dead comes to a halt with the persistent ringing of the closing bell. The stony-eyed bell ringer gives not a glance as we wave adieu and step through the gates into the late afternoon sun.
IF YOU GO:
Père Lachaise Cemetery
PHOTOS: K. Cullen Photos
1. Père Lachaise entrance
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