Friday, 21 March 2014

The Darker Side of Paris - Cimetière du Père-Lachaise

Yesterday I took myself off to the East of Paris to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, known in English as the Père Lachaise Cemetery. Located in the 20th arrondissement, it's not the most glamorous of areas but it draws in visitors from every continent as the home of Pere, the biggest cemetery in the city of Paris, and many say it is the most visited cemetery in the entire world.

I arrived shorty after lunchtime with no specific plan or route in mind. I knew very well that Oscar Wilde was buried here, but I had no idea of the scale of the place before I arrived or the fact that so many other prolific figures are buried here. It's a sort of morbid French Hollywood Walk of Fame, as the resting place of many artists, writers and politicians. I really had no idea who specifically. I just decided to see what I could see, wander and enjoy the flowers and the near perfect weather.

There is a map telling you where different people's graves are located, and many people make a beeline for the most famous graves are. I read down the list, and it really is quite an impressive roster: Gertrude Stein is buried here, painter Camille Pissarro, rock star Jim Morrison, composer Frederic Chopin, artist Max Ernst, and lots more names I recognised from the names of Metro stations. According to the Wikipedia page the exclusivity of the cemetery means that nowadays it's very difficult indeed to get in to Père Lachaise and that waiting lists are extremely long. Some graves are allocated on a 10-30 year lease and to save space numerous members of the same family are laid in the same tomb. 

There were lots of people milling around, groups of people on coach trips, couples, friends and other people like me who had come alone to be thoughtful and retreat for a moment. Far from being a scary or eerie place, it's very calm here and a place where many people come to find peace and escape the bustle of  inner city Paris. 

It was very humbling to see people tending to the graves, watering the plants and laying fresh flowers. Most of the helpers were a lot older than I would have expected, some not much younger than my own Grandma, all working very hard.

After a while I decided to go and look for Oscar, and as I expected it was by far the busiest grave of them all. On approach there was a group of people circling the grave, and I quietly joined the group taking photos and just looking. No one was saying a word, everyone was just paying their respects and it was a lovely moment to be a part of. The grave itself was not what I was expecting at all.

It's very modern, and the face of the flying statue is covered with lipstick kisses.

I came away feeling very calm and as I left I walked right past the crematorium where there was a funeral going on. I will be back before too long to visit the graves I didn't manage to find but I'm glad I came on such a lovely sunny day. It's amazing how a bit of sun makes everything look brighter. 

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