Sunday, November 3, 2013

48. The Glorious Dead

Paris boasts several large and historic cemeteries, but two have a greater significance, and during my stay I visited them both to pay my respects to a few famous Parisians. I have to confess to having a strange sense of enjoyment to being alone in deserted cemeteries and I was pretty much to myself in both these sites, making it nice peaceful excursions without the hassle of too many other tourists.

The living and the dead ...

My first visit was to the Montmartre Cemeteryestablished in 1825 - and here I found graves dated as late as the 1990s, though I don’t think it is used in more recent times …

Built below street level in the hollow of an old quarry – for health reasons back in the 1800’s –  and to wander through the 11 hectares of peacefulness and serenity you could never imagine it was also used as mass burial grounds during the French Revolution.

This is the final resting place of many famous French artists who lived and worked in the Montmartre area during the 19th and 20th centuries.

You are given a map when you enter the grounds helping you to find graves for notaries such as Edgar Degas, Hector Berlioz, Nadia Boulanger, Alexander Dumas, Vaslav Nijinsky, Jacques Offenbach and Francois Truffaut amongst the hundreds of mostly decaying crypts.

Hector Berlioz

Vaslav Nijinsky 

Edgar Degas 
Alexander Dumas
In one particularly deserted and dark corner of the cemetery I was startled when a large black cat, being chased by an equally large black crow, ran out from behind a tombstone and across my path !!! – spooky – now what omen was that ??? …

Early last century as Paris grew and the automobile started choking the narrow streets, decisions had to be made, and new road works took precedence over dead people ...

The last day of October is known as All Souls - and it is customary at this time in many Christian communities throughout the world to pay your respects to the departed. Here in France flower shops do a roaring trade in potted Chrysanthemums.

Originally from China - where they were cultivated as far back as the 15th century - the Chrysanthemums have many symbolic and herbal uses throughout the world. Of course in Australia we use Chrysanthemums for Mother's Day in May - and in the USA they use them for Thanksgiving at the end of November.  
My second visit to the dead was on a bitterly cold windy Parisian afternoon - so, being the brave adventurer that I am, I rug up and set off for a visit to the famous Père Lachaise - the largest cemetery in the city of Paris.

The cemetery - covering 44 hectares - takes its name from the confessor to Louis XIV, Père François de la Chaise (1624–1709), who lived in the Jesuit house rebuilt in 1682 on the site of the chapel. The land was bought by the city in 1804 and established as a cemetery that same year by Napoleon.
The first person buried there was a five-year-old girl named Adélaïde Paillard de Villeneuve, the daughter of a door bell-boy of the Faubourg St. Antoine. Napoleon, who had been proclaimed Emperor by the Senate three days earlier, had declared during the Consulate that “Every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion”.


But at the time of its opening, the cemetery was considered to be situated too far from the city and attracted few funerals. Moreover, many Roman Catholics refused to have their graves in a place that had not been blessed by the Church.


In 1804, the Père Lachaise had contained only 13 graves. Consequently, the administrators devised a marketing strategy and in 1804, with great fanfare, organised the transfer of the remains of Jean de La Fontaine and Molière. The following year there were 44 burials, with 49 in 1806, 62 in 1807 and 833 in 1812. Then, in another great spectacle in 1817, the purported remains of Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil were also transferred to the cemetery with their monument's canopy made from fragments of the abbey of Nogent-sur-Seine.

This strategy achieved its desired effect: people began clamouring to be buried among the famous citizens. Records show that, within a few years, Père Lachaise went from containing a few dozen permanent residents to more than 33,000 in 1830.

Today there are over 1 million bodies buried there, and many more in the columbarium, which holds the remains of those who had requested cremation.

The website tells us that there are maps available at the front gate – however by midday when I get there the man running the information counter and handing out the maps has gone home – someone sarcastically said that it was because he was too cold !!! … anyway a few clever people had downloaded the map onto their smart phones and I followed them from famous tomb to famous tomb.

 Frederic Chopin

Jim Morrison ( lead singer The Doors ) - d. 1971
Oscar Wilde
Oscar's grave site is the most visited in the cemetery - so much so that the management have had to put a plate glass shield around the tombstone to stop "pilgrims" touching the sculpture ...


Antonio Rossini
Another hugely interesting cemetery – the old crumbling and moss covered structures being a photographer’s delight – but after an hour or so wandering the cobbled pathways, the bitterly cold wind drove me home to the warmth of my apartment ...

My time in Paris is fast coming to an end and I have just enough time to show you some of the magnificent churches that I have stumbled onto / into during my walks around this great city before I head off on the next leg of my odyssey ... so do join me tomorrow ...