City of the Dead

City of the Dead

Today was the perfect day to visit a cemetery.

When you have two days in Paris, you have to know what you want to see, where you want to go. There’s no time for leisure sightseeing, because you won’t really see anything. My main prerogative had been to see the Louvre. That accomplished, I had also decided to visit Pere Lachaise, when I booked my hotel last weekend and realized that it was very close to the famous cemetery.

Most people know it, because Jim Morrison is buried here. That is whose grave they come to visit. But quite a few other famous people are buried here was well, I set out to find a few of them, safe for one, all of them writers.

If you want to go to Pere Lachaise, go in fall, or autumn, if you prefer. It supplies the graveyard with the right kind of mood. Falling leaves, clouds, possibly rain, the smell of rotting leaves, a certain dampness that clings to everything.

The rain had gone when I arrived, which was good, but it wouldn’t have kept me away. And even though everything was as described above, it wasn’t a cold day. I only got chilly after I’d been strolling around the tombstones for about an hour and a half.

I’m not in a habit of visiting graveyards and I’ve never seen one like this.

Wandering around, seeking the graves I’d been coming here for, I photographed a few tombs that were quite stunning, really beautiful ones among them.

I posted a selection over here on Tumblr:

Our obsession with death is remarkable. The number of intricate designed tombstones, sculptures, graves is astonishing. The money that must’ve been poured into this cemetery is something I couldn’t even guess at.

Some sculptures seemed to positively glorify the dead, though not death itself I guess. Others spoke of immense grief and sadness. I wondered who commissioned those graves. There were many, many family tombs; supposedly the whole family would be paying for those. There were graves for children with sculptures of children, presumably the deceased, on top.

Many graves bore the likenesses of those interred.

This sort of thing doesn’t come cheap. Considering the money that a coffin alone costs, these tombs could be worth quite a bit of money, it’s a veritable property to have.

And then there is this: according to estimates there are approximately one million people buried in Pere Lachaise in one form or another (this does count the cremated ones). It is still an operational cemetery and there’s still room. But apparently the waiting list is long and not everybody gets to be buried there just because it’s where they want to be buried.
It is indeed a city of the dead. They far outnumber the living, even though this is a cemetery that has its own influx of tourists.

In case you are wondering, who I came to see, here is the list:

Honore de Balzac

Marcel Proust

Oscar Wilde

Gertrude Stein

Edith Piaf

I found them all and only now that thought is starting to sink in. Mostly they had quite simple graves, in comparison with the neighbourhood anyway. The strangest one was Oscar Wilde’s, which I will have to read up on.

I paid a visit to the side of the graveyard that pays remembrance to the holocaust with a number of intriguing statues. I stood in silence.

Je suis desole.

Even though I wasn’t there or a part of it and it’s been 68 years since the last concentration camps were freed. It’s the guilt of an entire nation.

I did stroll past Jim Morrison’s grave and had to wonder what all the fuss was about. Poor guy can’t even rest in peace, because of this crowd of people all clambering over each other to get a view to snap a pic.

I continued on, breathing the air, watching the ravens, escaping American tourists, who called Oscar Wilde a playwright and wondered who Gertrude Stein was.

The graveyard is not an oppressive place to be, not depressive either. It was very peaceful and mostly I managed to stay by myself. What would the people buried there think of their visitors? What would they think of their own tombs and gravestones?

I thought of “The Graveyard Book” and wondered if they knew. Or if they cared.

Death is inescapable. Going to a cemetery doesn’t necessarily serve as a reminder, nor does it make you feel more alive. I paid my respects and I made sure to respect those few legitimate mourners tending on family graves, or calling on dead relatives.

Curiously this city of the dead is much more for the living than for the woefully deceased. It is us, who go there and care. It is our place of mourning, somewhere to go and visit, to speak to those that have left us, sometimes too soon.

I felt affirmed in my resolution to be cremated, though, or whatever they’ll do to your remains when the time arrives in the far future. Return to the dust I came from. It seems to me the most poetic thing to do.

The atoms I am made of were born in a supernova. I can’t return the supernova, but my atoms will be redistributed. Just the way I want it and as it should be.

And as for my soul, if it is a real thing, I hope it’ll go and explore.

Original posted on the 21st October 2013

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