Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris.
I went to Paris in the summer and walking round the cemeteries was probably my favourite thing to do. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it. Is it just a morbid fascination with death? I don’t think so. The cemeteries here are so ironic and at times uncomfortable that one cannot help to be fascinated by them and comforted by their frankness.
Firstly, it is a cemetery; people have been laid to rest here. The ones holding famous people, such as Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, have become tourist attractions. But, years ago people would have visited them, would have grieved, cried and remembered their loved ones. To stand in a place that had held, and still holds, people at their most vulnerable, witnessed their displays of emotion and grief was incredibly moving. This point was made ever so poignantly near the grave of the composer Chopin. We were looking at it, reading the notes people had left as an elderly woman walked past us, carrying a bouquet. I watched her walk on by and noticed a grave more colourful than the rest. The woman who lay there had died recently and friends, family and colleagues had covered her grave in flowers and notes. I went from being in sheer awe of standing at the foot of a great composer’s grave to feeling a great pang of grief for a woman I did not know, but only aware of in death, but who would never know of me, my existence and would never be aware that I was standing at the foot of her grave.
Secondly, the sheer grandeur of it is amazing. Walking round a Parisian cemetery is completely different to walking round a British one. It was magnificent, set in acres of parkland with tall trees, watching over the dead who lay there. In Britain even the wealthy and the famous are content with headstones, anything more than that stands out and the desire to be different is not something the British are particularly known for. The Parisians though like, or rather liked their tombs. There is no denial of death here, no small stone with lines of who lies here and what they did in life, but a large statement of what people can do in death. Every tomb is as grand as the next. If you took away their reason to exist they would not look out of place in an art gallery and often it is easy to get carried away, to forget that you are in a cemetery and not in an outdoor museum. People marvel at the architecture, gasp at the luxury and (to my annoyance) take pictures in the tombs: smiling, happy pictures. One can only imagine what these cemeteries would have looked like hundreds of years ago, like their occupants some are decaying, forgotten and left in the constraints of this world, with the inevitable problems that brings, both natural and man-made.
It is somewhat ironic then that the unrefined, unassuming fact of death should be held in such opulence and grandeur. If ever you visit Paris (I cannot say if cemeteries are like this across France) I would recommend you walk round one. Not to visit the graves of the famous but to be truly humbled and to see the often uncomfortable fact of mortality in its most extravagant of settings.
I cannot agree more, Père Lachaise is a magnificent place and you can visit the cemetery ‘virtually’ here. For anyone planning a trip to Paris in the flesh, then I would also recommend a visit to the Les Catacombes, they are truly spectacular.