My mother’s father died January 21, 1963, four weeks after he fell asleep while smoking in bed on Christmas Day. I was in second grade, which meant that a funeral was not an appropriate place for me to be, at least in the views of my parents, who presumably were trying to protect me from life’s harshest reality. Television, however, showed less concern for my mental well-being. After watching Lon Cheney and Boris Karloff on Saturday nights with the baby sitter, I found cemeteries to be mysteriously scary places.
I remember my early visits to these pastoral grounds. Relatives had died. Standing among the graves as the mourners chanted Kaddish, I looked at the piles of leaves or a freshly covered grave in close proximity to the hole that stared back at the me and the other mourners. A caretaker clad in jeans would turn a hand crank to lower someone that I had known into the ground . Moments later, we shoveled dirt onto the burial vault.
I wondered whether a hand might suddenly emerge from the ground, grabbing me by the ankle, and then pulling me down into a cavity where bacteria and larva feasted on and aided human decay. Would my fingers find their way into empty eye sockets? Of course, by 8th grade I knew this would not happen, but the experience was no different than sitting in a movie theatre watching a horror movie. It’s not real, but in a dark theatre, you momentarily forget that it isn’t.
Those concerns are long gone, although when I first visited Père Lachaise, the supernatural was one again tangible. Some of the tombs showed visible signs of decay, often with a visible opening where the stone slab had separated from the ground and then broken apart. If I could see into that cavity, certainly something could reach up, particularly as I walked along the narrow pathways between the tombs, walking farther and farther from the well-traveled lanes traversing the cemetery sections. Now only inches separated the tombs and mausoleums, with growth and decaying leaves obscuring the distinction between ending and beginning. Would a cavity suddenly appear where I was standing?
For the most part, I don’t think about death or ghouls anymore as I explore the Paris cemeteries. Because I am there to photograph, I spend lots of time thinking about where the light would be best at particular times of day. I get lost looking for the graves of the famous. My mind wanders. Where will I eat tonight? Should I go to the Jeu de paume tomorrow or the day after? How should I begin my lecture during my scheduled 2019 OLLI photography class?
To me, the Paris cemeteries are no different than other urban settings. There are structures, natural landscapes, roadways, foliage, meadows, overcrowded sections, and passersby, all fodder for images. When I am wandering about, I feel like I am lost in a city. I don’t think about death when I am lost in Saint-Germain-des-Près or Le Marais, so why should it occupy my mind when I am enjoying the light in what is a park-like setting?
Of course, it is not possible to completely ignore death, particularly when a crowd is gathered for a funeral. And the tombstones have dates, which permit calculations to be made, bringing to mind a Roz Chast cartoon that the New Yorker first published in 1993. A man sits at the breakfast table reading the obituaries in his morning newspaper. The first entry is labeled, “Two Years Younger Than You.” Another reads, ”Five Years Your Senior.” And then there is the one that proclaims, “Exactly Your Age.” It is the dates that bring death to mind, not the tombstones and mausoleums. We live in time, not stone.
[Click on an Image to Enlarge It]
Contemplating the Unknown (Père Lachaise)
Narrow, Pathways, Densely Populated Sections (Père Lachaise)
What’s Inside? (Père Lachaise)
Locked or Ajar? (Père Lachaise)
Afterschool Shortcut (Père Lachaise)
Broken and Open (Père Lachaise)
Welcoming (Père Lachaise)
Who Moved the Stone? ((Père Lachaise)
Who’s Watching? (Père Lachaise)
Love in the Afternoon Prevails Over All (Montmartre Cemetery)
What Lurks Between the Mausoleums? (Père Lachaise)
Photographer’s Notes: Many of the photographs in this essay are from my December 2018 trip to Paris. Others are from earlier visits. Some were originally rejected by me. I don’t know why I rejected them, but when reviewing all my Paris image files in early January 2019, I rediscovered them. They looked pretty good, which is why when in doubt, save the file and then go back to it.