Parisian Cemeteries

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Serge Gainsbourg’s gravesite, Montparnasse cemetery.

Most cities confine their major cemeteries to outer boroughs or near suburbs, but Paris honors its dead within its boundaries: streets, squares and tombstones. Avenues, streets and boulevards are named after famous politicians, engineers, writers, artists, actors, with a plaque explaining what the person has been honored for. The streets and squares may be passive thoroughfares to the nonliving, but the cemeteries are interactive attractions that honor buried greatness or celebrity.

I’ve always liked visiting them. In Paris, I visited three shortly after my arrival. They spoke to me as I attempted to create a new life for myself, not in order to become great or celebrated, but to become someone who had tried to move beyond the ordinary.

I first lived in Paris near Montparnasse cemetery in the 14th arrondissement. It’s more sedate than the cemeteries of Montmartre or Père Lachaise. On weekends, Père Lachaise, in the 20th arrondissement, swarms with tourists of all nationalities searching for the grave of Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf, while Montparnasse is relatively subdued. Montmartre cemetery is a bit of both, with solitary tomb-seekers and eager throngs.

In my various visits to the cemeteries, I learned to wander without a plan. The free maps that the information office gives out are, at best, approximate, as if they were drawn from memory. I was better off taking a path and letting the names on the tombs or the location of the graves inspire me.

Certain of them become inadvertent art projects that reflect the nature of the dead poet or writer or artist and the living admirer. At Montmartre, Serge Gainsbourg’s looks like the morning after a boisterous if regretful party. It’s laden with photographs or drawings of the singer-songwriter-actor-director and festooned with bouquets of flowers – some quite enormous – cigarettes, a coffee mug and even heads of cabbage. I saw a few people take pictures of themselves in front of Gainsbourg’s grave, but almost discreetly, as if they didn’t want to wake the dead still recovering from that drunken blowout. At Montparnasse I got the sense that, despite the wealth of big names here – Samuel Beckett, Alfred Dreyfus, Jean Seberg – the cemetery reflects the laissez-faire spirit of its arrondissement.

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The tomb of Oscar Wilde, at Père Lachaise.

More exuberant is the monument to Oscar Wilde at Père Lachaise. It still casts a dandified power over us.

His Art Nouveau tomb is splattered with kisses. I saw one young woman applying a coat of lipstick – Jungle Red, maybe? – and then planting a smooch on the pink, almost flesh-colored concrete, an act of delirious supplication to an artist for whom life itself was art.

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Wilde’s tomb, covered with kisses.

Wilde’s tomb is an exuberance of longing to connect with a spirit of societal abandon, and the kisses and graffiti (warmhearted and loving) continue despite the little plaque in English and French that warns against defacing the tomb.

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Jim Morrison’s grave, Père Lachaise.

Jim Morrison’s grave, too, tucked away as it is behind some larger monuments, is a receptacle of fandom, too, but a little sad.

Doors album covers lean against it, an empty bottle of Jack Daniels perches on Morrison’s small tombstone amid the wilting flowers and scribbled mash notes. Fans have marked his death by excess with an excess of unthinking elegy.

Proust’s tomb, by contrast, is sober and quiet, a vase of flowers at its rear and, the day I visited, a small bouquet left lying on its top. I stood there for a moment, then found a single green leaf, which I placed next to the flowers.

At Montmartre, the tomb of Sacha Guitry (near those of his father and other family members), stands guard at one of the entrances, as if Guitry were welcoming you among the dead in his ironic way: “Il y a des gens sur qui on peut compter. Ce sont généralement des gens dont on n’a pas besoin,” or “There are people on whom you can count, but they’re generally the people from whom you don’t need anything.”

I wasted a few hours at Montmartre trying to find the grave of the actor Louis Jouvet – the map was typically hopeless – and only came upon it when I followed a group whose leader promised to show the group the grave of one of France’s greatest actors. Sure enough, there it was, hidden far from where the map had indicated it would be. That’s how I came upon the rose-sprinkled tomb of Edith Piaf, by taking up the rear behind a group of German tourists.

To me, though, one of the most remarkable tombs – and I realize that these cemeteries remain cemeteries, filled with recent mourners who still grieve and honor relatives and friends – is one of two fallen 19th-century aeronauts, unknown to those who search Père Lachaise for the fallen famous.

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The tomb of the 19th-century balloonists Joseph Eustache Crocé-Spinelli and Théodore Sivel.

Joseph Eustache Crocé-Spinelli and Théodore Sivel perished together during a balloon ascent in 1875. At Père Lachaise they’re buried together too, and a statue on the top of their tomb displays them, wrapped, it seems, in sheets of their faulty balloon, clutching hands, friends in eternal death.

The sculpture fairly breathes with the force of recent life – it’s almost vulgarly romantic – and when I saw it I stayed for a minute wondering at their friendship, their heroism, their tragedy and their being united below and above ground. The statue, or their story, spoke to another passerby, who left a flower that lay between them like a palpable vow.

In Paris, the dead are always with us, known and unknown, famous and forgotten, tugging at us to help us shape ourselves so that we might be remembered for more than simply having lived.

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