Pere Lachaise Cemetery – stories of Paris Past

A cemetery may seem a strange choice as a tourist attraction, but Per Lachaise is no ordinary city graveyard.This sprawling Paris necropolis has turned remembrance into art………HITACHI HDC-1491E

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Paris’s largest and most celebrated cemetery first opened its elegant gates in 1804. After getting off to a slow start (it was considered by many to be too far outside of the centre of Paris) it became within two decades the most desirable residence for the city’s fashionable deceased. The rise in popularity was due in no small part to a deliberate if somewhat macabre promotional strategy thought up by the administrators in charge of the site which involved transferring the remains of several notable citizens from their original places of interment to new plots within Per Lachaise.

The cemetery takes its name from Pere (Father) Francoise de La Chaise, the priest who took confession from King Louis XIV. Pere de La Chaise belonged to a Jesuit order which in the late 17th century lived on the site of the current cemetery. A former chapel now serving as the cemetery office stands near to the main entrance on the spot of the former Jesuit residence. Visitors can call in for a map which shows the tombs of the famed of Paris.

Not all of the graves in this cemetery are grand or eccentric; many simple headstones soberly and humbly mark the final resting places of ordinary Parisians.

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There is an eclectic mix of architectural styles, my own particular favourite being the tiny house-like structures which often contain a single chair for quiet moments of sitting and remembering.

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Inside one of the tombs; the single chair is just out of shot. What a beautiful place!

The cemetery, like the city, is divided into arrondissements, or zones. The more modern sections are at the back near to the crematorium, an impressive Byzantine-like building with a multi-level columbarium where remains are housed in niches within the walls. Some are quirky and beautifully crafted, probably reflecting the personalities of those whose remains repose there. The columbarium structure has the appearance of an art installation.

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This gorgeously glazed memorial preserves the memory of Maurice and Jacqueline
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Max Ernst, German sculptor and surrealist painter
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What a happy couple Gisele and Gilbert look
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The smile of a beautiful young woman is captured for eternity
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I became fascinated by Leilah Mahi, a French-Lebanese writer. Unfortunately, there is very little information available, and I haven’t been able to find any English translations of her work.

Near to the rear entrance of Per Lachaise is a beautiful memorial erected to the memory of the 228 victims of Air France Flight 447, which fell out of the sky whilst flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009. The clear Perspex structure shows 228 birds in flight, one to represent each passenger, which I think is quite lovely.

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Over 3.5 million visitors pass through the gates each year and many of them come to pay tribute to Jim Morrison, icon, legend and front man of 1960s rock band, The Doors. Morrison died in Paris in 1971, aged just 27 years, an official cause of death never recorded, though speculation at the time was rife, and still is. Jim Morrison was not only a talented musician but also a poet and film maker. In the 1970s and ’80s, the grave took on a shrine-line status. Fans would gather and leave mementos and lines of poetry expressing their admiration. Another tradition which sprang up was that of leaving chewing gum on a nearby tree; this still continues. I didn’t feel inspired to contribute, though many others did.

My last visit to Per Lachaise was in October 2014 and metal railings had already been erected around the grave, though they presented no obstacle at all to the agile youth and youthful in spirit who wanted to place their flowers and trinkets at the grave. More recently the free and easy behaviour of some fans has come to be considered by the cemetery authorities to be a nuisance and disrespectful, and there have even been suggestions that Jim’s remains be relocated to his country of birth, the USA.

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The Jim Morrison gum tree.

 

In my thirties I became very interested in French literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. I must add that I read these great works in English translation, as my high school French could just about stretch to ordering a coffee and a baguette. I lost myself in the novels of Andre Bretton, Joris-Karl Huysmans and Violette Leduc to name a few, and out of this emerged a great interest in Paris. One much revered author who I never really took to was Marcel Proust. I acknowledge his talent, and the famous ‘madeleine moment’ analogy really struck a chord with me as with many; I persevered with the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, but could continue no further. The legendary writer is laid to rest in Pere Lachaise.

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Oscar Wilde, Irish poet and novelist, died in Paris in 1900 (see my blog about this). He left England in disgrace after release from a prison sentence for gross indecency. Wilde was married and a father of two children but had been involved in relationships with several men, most notably Lord Alfred Douglas whose father, the Marquis of Queensbury, was instrumental in bringing about Wilde’s fall from grace.

It is tradition to leave a token of appreciation in the form of a kiss. Visitors should put on their brightest lipstick and pucker up to the sphinx. It’s not possible to get near to the sandstone any more as it is surrounded by a Perspex barrier at the request of Wilde’s descendants who are required to foot the bill for keeping the grave in good repair. The smooching continues on the Perspex and I couldn’t leave Per Lachaise without adding my own mark of respect.

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Lipstick marks left by Oscar Wilde admirers

Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris – Taking a walk on the Wilde side

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The inspiration for this blog has once again come from a meeting of the book group which I have belonged to for about four years. We have read all sorts of titles from the obscure to the latest Booker Prize winners. Almost all have been novels, though recently there has been some deviation: October/November brought us George Orwell’s social commentary The Road to Wigan Pier (see my blog about this), and the penultimate 2017 selection was a play by Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan. It’s only short and highly amusing and we considered allocating parts and reading it together – in character – but decided we had too many other things to talk about as well, such as our favourite Christmas tree baubles, cats and the National Health Service.

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Oscar Wilde is one of the great names of Anglo-Irish literature. In the last decade of the 19th century he wrote poetry; several plays – notably comedies – including Lady Windermere’s Fan and his most famous, The Importance of Being Earnest; he also wrote many short stories and is the author of the famous novel, The Picture of Dorien Gray.

In as much as he was famous for his contributions to literature, Wilde was also surrounded by controversy relating to his sexuality. Married, and a father of two sons, Oscar Wilde also had sexual relationships with men, most notably Lord Alfred Douglas. His lover’s influential father accused Wilde, in writing, of being homosexual, and Wilde contested this at a time when to be a gay man was illegal and when the appearance of conventional respectability was everything. Wilde lost the libel trial which backfired horribly, causing his private life to be exposed and landing him in prison charged with gross indecency. After his release the disgraced Oscar Wilde removed himself to Paris where he lived and eventually died on 30th November 1900.

I have twice visited Pere Lachaise, the Paris cemetery where Oscar Wilde is buried. My last visit there was in 2014. I’ll add at this point that I don’t have a particular interest in cemeteries and don’t go out of my way to visit them. I prefer to explore a metropolis, not a necropolis, however, my friend and fellow traveller is a big ‘Doors’ fan and Pere Lachaise also happens to be the final resting place of lead singer, Jim Morrison. She insisted on paying her respects to Jim and thus ensued a most interesting excursion around that architectural gem in the heart of the French capital.

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Pere Lachaise is the biggest and most famous cemetery in Paris. If one feels inclined to explore every inch of the grounds it would probably take up half a day. Burials still take place, but spaces are limited and in great demand. The crematorium is also located there and many choose to have their ashes interred in the elegant and artistic columbarium.

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The tombs of ordinary Parisians lie alongside those of many notable people and an information leaflet with map has been produced to help visitors navigate the terrain and find the tombs of interest. With 3.5 million visitors per year it is the most visited cemetery in the world. It goes without saying that one of the most visited graves is that of Oscar Wilde.

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Like the man, the grave is elaborate and flamboyant and at the time of its construction was similarly controversial due to the perceived sexualisation of its design. It has been both vandalised and restored over the years.  It cost £2000 and was designed by sculptor Jacob Epstein who was greatly interested in Indian and Egyptian sensual art; this, along with inspiration from Wilde’s poem The Sphinx is said to have resulted in the most unusual memorial. Interestingly, it was created in London and the stone was from Cheshire. The epitaph on the grave is taken from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written whilst Wilde was incarcerated there:

And alien tears will fill for him

Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners will be outcast men,

And outcasts always mourn.

There is a long-standing tradition of applying some bright lipstick (if you’re not wearing some already!) and planting a kiss on Oscar Wilde’s grave. This was met with disapproval by the cemetery authorities and Oscar Wilde’s descendants and in 2011 a protective barrier was assembled around the monument to prevent further smooching. Many visitors, not all outcasts and not all men, still kiss the Perspex. I did, of course, add to the collection of lip prints! Although it may appear as if the sky is strangely blue in this part of the cemetery alone, the real reason is that the photo below was taken during a spring time visit where the others were taken in grey October.

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Pere Lachaise has a lot of stories to tell. More photos and tales of the famous departed will follow soon, so watch this space.