Having recently returned from ten delirious days in Paris, France, I realize how other worldly and rich the city truly is. I have made Paris my vacation destination many times in the past, and each time is different, and each time is better. I learned from previous trips what parts of the city I found to be the most intriguing and written mental post-it notes of places I wished I had spent more time. So, this time, I was prepared and ready, sleep deprived, cameras and flash cards in hand, to explore the very moment we arrived. My 17-year-old son, Sam, accompanied me on this trip, and he also is captivated with the art of photography, which allowed me to make him my apprentice as well as my sherpa for helping to lug my heavy gear. Being an avid cemetery enthusiast, I made sure the first place we journeyed was to the most famous and historic of all cemeteries in Paris, Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise. It was here where we spent eight hours (with a small lunch break consisting of Salad Nicoise and Mexican coca colas) wandering and probing the dense stony population for not only the famous tombs, but the most ornate, the ones bearing the most anguished of breathtaking statues appearing as lifelike as a departed relative in a dream. Some are laid splayed out atop their tomb as if slumbering in the shade on a hot summer day, clothing dangling off of their bodies onto the dusty earth below. Others don the clothes they perished in as they were shot dead in a duel over a tawdry romance with another man's wife. Some appear in stony grace standing erect or draped over the grave with their faces shrouded in yards of fabric, faces full of tragedy. A few appear with their pets, alert, tails wagging. One of the most famous ones is the grave of Viktor Noir, a man killed in his twenties, feet still clad in leather boots, top hat at his side. His life-sized bronze statue, sculpted by Jules Dalou, portrays Viktor as though he had just fallen on the street, dropping his hat from his extended fingers. The sculpture has a very noticeable protuberance in Noir's trousers. This has made it one of the most popular memorials for women visitors in the Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise. According to local myth, if a woman places a flower in the upturned bronze hat after kissing the statue's lips and rubbing its genital area, the woman's fertility will be enhanced. She will have a blissful sex life, and hopefully a husband within one year. As a result of this legend, those specific components of his statue which would otherwise be a green oxidized bronze, are rather well-worn and shiny. Other graves were, naturally, just as fascinating to us. We made special care to see the famous ones, such as that of Frederic Chopin, Jim Morrison, and that infamous Irishman Oscar Wilde. Wilde's grave, on my last visit, was covered, every inch, with lipstick kisses. On this trip, however, his grave had been protected by sheets of plexiglass to keep those wanton kisses off. On the day of our visit, the grave of Jim Morrison was being power washed by a fairly large crew, but with some careful pleading, we were allowed close to the grave for a photo op. In fact, the Morrison grave is the only one in the cemetery that has a full-time guard on duty, as there have been too many thieves stealing parts of the grave as souvenirs.
As it goes for enthusiasts of any venue or interest, one cemetery was not enough for our fix, so the following day, we covered two more. We walked from our hotel to the Cimetiere Montparnasse. Created from three farms in 1824, the cemetery at Montparnasse was originally known as Le Cimetière du Sud. This place is the eternal home of many of France's intellectual and artistic elite as well as publishers and others who promoted the works of authors and artists. There are also monuments to police and fire fighters killed in the line of duty in the city of Paris. There are many graves of foreigners who have made France their home. As our search for the most ornate stones had been highly honed from the day before, we were able to rather expeditiously scan the tops of the massive burial site to quickly locate the most ethereal of heavenly beings to photograph. This cemetery is home to more stone angels than Pere-Lachaise. Some were swaddling the deceased, barely clad, female with their tender hands as they whisked the newly dead to heaven. Other notable stones were a pair of five feet tall hands clasped in prayer, and several nude females lying prostrate over the grave like broken puppets. Having been the second long stint in two days in a cemetery, I lost Sam's interest for an hour or so, as he napped on a bench alongside the cobblestone path. Claiming he was "dead tired", he could have passed for a memorial stone, had he not been wearing a black graphic t-shirt from Walmart and holding my backpack as his pillow. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, in a sort of "death march" to the third most important cemetery in Paris, the Cemetiere Montmartre.
The Cemetiere Montmartre is located in, of course, the area of Montmartre not far from La Basilique du Sacre Coeur. To get to this cemetery, we had to take a relatively long ride via the Metropolitan. Fortunately, Paris was still experiencing cool temps so the resistance of some of the French to wearing deodorant was not yet an issue. This particular cemetery is located in a former rock quarry and so we descended the steps to its entrance. Located west of the Butte, near the beginning of Rue Caulaincourt in Place de Clichy, the cemetery in the Montmartre quarter of Paris has its entrance on Avenue Rachel under Rue Caulaincourt. A popular tourist destination, it is the final resting place of many famous artists who lived and worked in the Montmartre area. I was immediately overcome with that adrenaline rush that we cemetery enthusiasts experience when we realize that we have hit the jackpot of all cemeteries. It is a peaceful setting of almost 11 hectares in size, and shaded by some 750 trees – essentially maples, as well as a small number of thuyas, chestnut trees, and lime trees. The streets are made of cobblestone, and there are feral cats, fed quite well by locals, slumbering contentedly among the stones. We searched out and photographed several famous graves such as that of Alexandre Dumas, Michel Berger, a very successful singer and songwriter, central figure of France's pop music scene for two decades, who died young in life, the famous painter and sculptor Edgar Degas, and countless others. The streets were lined with ancient mausoleums, windows ajar, revealing dried flower arrangements and cobalt blue stained glass windows of the Virgin Mary. My most favorite stone in this cemetery was that of a bronze woman curled in an almost fetal position, head down so her face was barely visible, hands gripped in pain and arms thrown over her head in despair. By contrast, one grave featured a man fully decked out in a clown costume complete with hat and ruffles around his neck, seated carefully on the corner of the grave.
These cemeteries are stunningly well-organized on printed brochures for tourists, as well as fascinating web sites such as www.findagrave.com. Before your trip, be sure to have in mind the particular grave you want to visit so you won't miss anything important. Also, bring plenty of water with you and a picnic lunch, as most visitors find a bench or dilapidated tombstone to set up a baguette sandwich and some brie. The cemeteries are viewed as parks in Paris and an intriguing way to pass an entire afternoon, or even a whole day, if you are like me. In general, after two days of wandering in these fantastic cemeteries, I can fully understand why so many people are dying to get in.
Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)