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

There are museums and there is the Louvre

The French are not the best sandwich makers in the world. When I wrote this I was eating a somewhat stale baguette with cheese. That’s it, no slice of tomato or cucumber, not a single leave of lettuce. Just a few slices of emmental. And butter, I believe, beure.

But then I don’t suppose that one visits Paris to eat sandwiches. There’s far better food to be had and even if it was simple, I had a wonderful omelette for dinner last night. And a crepe for breakfast, which was lovely as well.

I didn’t come for the food, though. I came to visit the Louvre.

When I visited Paris the last time, which was also the first time, I came with my family. It was our last family trip before my brother and I started to take off without our parents. I was 18 and I had an obsession with the French Revolution.

My Mom gave me the newly acquired map of Paris and told me to show us around the city. For the better part of two and a half days I dragged us around the city, we managed to see every major sight, even went to Versailles.

But when we arrived at the Louvre, it was closed. It was a Monday. I still vividly remember. I was so disappointed. It’s not uncommon for museums to be closed on Mondays, but who remembers these things when you’re excitedly discover a city that you’ve been dreaming of?

We were leaving the next day so that was that.

I’ve been wanting to come back every since, but didn’t pursue the option while I still lived in Germany. Curiously it wouldn’t have occurred to me to just come over by myself. Then I travelled the globe and since I returned to Europe I was set to visit.

But as it is with most things, you either book the flight or train or you keep talking about it without ever going.

A few weeks ago I decided it was time to see the Louvre, so I booked the train and in this approaching week, have been stupidly excited about it.

I wasn’t exactly excited about getting up at 5:45am on Saturday morning to go to St. Pancras to catch my train, I was, in fact, decidedly tired. Well, I got over it and when I arrived at Gare du Nord, I took the Metro to Cite, paid Notre Dame a quick visit, ran across Pont Neuf and almost without further distraction made it to the glass pyramid, the main entrance of the Louvre to stand in line.


I was almost literally over the moon, went nuts with my camera and thought to myself that nobody should be this excited about going to a museum. Must be the geek in me, or is it the nerd?

After an initial orientation, I dropped my backpack off and visited almost the entire museum. One could quite easily spend an entire day at the museum. And still wouldn’t have seen all of it, if half. The building complex is gigantic. Due to part closures the wings aren’t exactly easily accessible either and I had to run up and down the stairs numerous times in order to move between wings.


Needless to say that quite a number of muscles in my thighs are aching today that I seem to have forgotten exist. The lesson to be learned here is obviously that I need to climb stairs more often.

The building map that you can get for free gives you a number of highlights on each floor in each wing. I managed to see 90% of those highlights, only skipping those I truly wasn’t interested in.

I saw the Mona Lisa from afar. I had no inclination to wrestle with the masses in front of her, held back only by a feeble looking barrier. I got a sideways glance at her and moved on.

I couldn’t help thinking that it might not even be the original, if you believe the movies that is, which would then be kept in the vaults. I would’ve liked to see her closer up, not because of her fame, but for her creator, if it truly was the master himself, who painted her.

I spent four hours skipping around not just centuries of human art and history, but millennia. I wandered through the Egyptian collection, Greek sculptures, met Rembrandt, sighed over Caspar David Friedrich and marvelled at Jaques Louis David.


And then there was the Louvre itself. The building complex is utterly remarkable. I posted some impressions of it over on Tumblr last night. I just loved wandering through the halls. When I used my camera, it was more to capture the architecture than get a photo of the Venus of Milo, though I did that, too.

Sufficient to say I need to go back.

If I lived in Paris, I would come here every other weekend, visit one part of the museum at a time in order to get to know all areas as well as they deserve to be known. In four hours I practically flew through the exhibition. I saw everything and nothing, only paused here and there when something in particular captured me.

But there is so much more to discover, so many things that will take your breath away.

The length and width, the breadth and depth of art that human kind is capable of is astonishing.

How this is true for the same species that causes so much willful destruction is utterly beyond me. Sadly, fewer men and women seem to create art than wage war. Or they do neither, instead look the other way, because war doesn’t bother them and art doesn’t inspire them.

Of course reality isn’t that black and white, but when you look at so much “white” everything else seems to be “black”.

What a curious species we are.

Anyway, next weekend I’m going to the British Museum, because it’s been too many years since I went and it’s quite the English counterpart of the Louvre. If I can’t go back to the Louvre anytime soon, I will at least appreciate what I have at my doorstep.

Originally published on the 21st October 2013