No one can or should deceive themselves about the temporal nature of a life. Flesh and bone return to dust, but remembrance, that’s an entirely different matter—at least some people think so. Cemeteries are the departing generation’s effort to force future generations to remember them, but even such efforts, despite the use of stone and metal, are an illusion.
A walk through Père Lachaise or any of the other thirteen Paris cemeteries offers conclusive proof. While the tombs of historical figures and families are well-maintained, many other tombs are crumbling beyond repair. Metal doors that protect the interiors of the small chapels that sit above family plots are hanging from the door hinges, encased in oxidized rust. The ground has crumbled below once secure tombs, possibly revealing a coffin, or more likely an empty hole. Stone fingers, busts, swords, and even an angel’s erect penis are missing. Time takes its toll. Like the flesh that preceded it, the stone and metal memorializing the dead decay with time, just more slowly.
No one has any misconceptions about the less permanent memorials that family members and other visitors leave behind—flowers, photographs, toys and Metro tickets. The flowers wilt or freeze within days. The photographs fade. And the wind scatters the used Metro tickets unless the cemetery’s groundskeepers remove them first.
While the immediately succeeding generation may tend the graves and pay for repairs to the structures, those who come after them are less likely to care. Fortunes dissipate over succeeding generation, as do memories of people who created the wealth. Why bother remembering someone you never met and whose wealth has been dissipated by intervening generations?
Ever the realist, the law recognizes the illusion of perpétuité, albeit in rather prosaic terms. For a long time, the City of Paris granted only perpetual concessions in intramural cemeteries. It now grants ten-year, thirty-year, and fifty-year concessions in addition to perpetual ones. Obviously the term-limited concessions are not perpetual, but the law does grant renewal rights, with an exception for destitute persons interned under five-year grants. Five years is hardly enough time to get comfortable.
Even when the concession is perpétuité, it is not necessarily permanent. If the grant—grave—has been “abandoned,” there is a procedure for exhuming the body and returning the concession to the municipality for a grant to another deserving soul. The law is not entirely clear what it means to abandon a concession. The case law has only rarely ruled on the issue. Under one decision, a burial must show external signs which are harmful to the good order and decency of the cemetery. Thus, a burial "dilapidated and invaded by brambles or other parasitic plants" or "covered with grass or on [which] grow wild shrubs" is proof of abandonment.
The procedure for taking over abandoned concessions is long. It is carried out in seven stages, the total duration of which is three years and eight months. When, after a period of thirty years, a concession has ceased to be maintained, authorities must give notice to the public and families. If, the concession is still in a state of abandonment three years after the notice, the authorities may issue an order declaring the return of the land allocated to the concession, provided, however, that the last burial in the conceded land is 10 years old or more.
Once the procedure is completed, the community can proceed with the exhumation of the remains and the demolition of the vault and the monument and then grant the land to a new dealer. Each town must have an ossuary where the exhumed remains are immediately buried. While cremation of the exhumed remains is permitted, cremation of the those remains is only permitted if there is no known, attested, or presumed will of the deceased opposing such practice.
Not surprisingly, certain historic monuments and areas of Père Lachaise are protected, which means they are more permanent than other areas. The abandonment rules apparently do not apply to these monuments or sections.
[Click on an Image to Enlarge It]
Three Years Later (Père Lachaise)
“Propriete Perpétuité” (Père Lachaise)
Decay in the Afternoon Sun (Père Lachaise)
Is Graffiti Equivalent to Bramble? (Père Lachaise)
The Chapel Remains, But the Body Now Resides in Silly (Père Lachaise)
Ramble Tamble (Père Lachaise)
Soon to Be Dead and Decayed; Soon to Be Gone (Père Lachaise)
Yellow Roses (Père Lachaise)
Red Rose Preserved in Stone (Père Lachaise)
“A Notre Toto” (Père Lachaise)
Is It About Him or Them? (Père Lachaise)
Ephemera Left to Honor the Dead (Montparnasse Cemetery)
A Well-Know Sculptural Facade; A Lesser Known Ossuary (Père Lachaise)
The Different Categories of Protected Areas and Monuments in 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.