Paris' Cemeteries

Paris' Cemeteries

I’ll be your mirror

Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know
— Velvet Underground, with Nico

The title of Jean Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, came to mind as I was walking among the tombs and mausoleums in the Montparnasse Cemetery and stumbled across Sartre’s lip-stick stained headstone. Nobody below the surface or encased in stone is getting out, at least physically.  Well, there may be an exception when a cemetery has an onsite crematorium, as does Père Lachaise, the most visited cemetery in the world, which is located in Paris.  The deceased who cremation do go up in smoke, but some part of their physicality rises from the chimney, with a few molecules taking flight in the vapor settling on rooftops and in parks.  Yet, most of their remains do end up in urns.  The cemetery doesn’t seem to want to let those souls go, so it provides wall spaces where the ashes that don’t escape through the smokestack are encased behind square slabs should the deceased through his last will and testament or his relatives decide to memorialize the deceased within the cemetery’s four corners. 

 The original language title for Sartre’s play, Huis Clos, translates as In Camera, meaning a private discussion behind closed doors.  As I walk the transversals in Père Lachaise and the other cemeteries I have visited in Paris with camera in hand, I am in conversation with both the living and the dead. The physical manifestations keeping the dead alive in our collective memories interact with each other; serve as mirrors, and often educate when I subsequently Google the names inscribed on the stone and metal surfaces. 

A cemetery is hardly an end, nor is it static.  True, the first thing most of us notice are the crumbling tombs and patinaed bronze doors securing family mausoleums and chapels.  But once, when I stepped back three paces from an artist’s gravestone, I brushed up against the headstone of a recently deceased French film star who rose to fame during the French New Wave back in the late Fifties.  She had died just months earlier. Her freshly dug grave was not different than the tree buds that emerge each Spring above the tombs. Both are forms of renewal and change.

 Many have asked me for directions to Jim’s grave.  They leave flowers, candles, and other ephemera at his poorly designed tombstone, sometimes singing Light My Fire or some other classic.  Yet, if they were to head 30 or so steps north, they would encounter Suzon Garigues, who was one of the victims of the November 2015 Bataclan terrorist attack.  She was one of 90 people killed as the Eagles of Death Metal began to play Kiss the Devil.  The cemetery is not as static as our first impressions initially lead us to believe. Morrison and Garigues are connected even though she was not alive when he died. One is a Rock & Roll legend; the other was apparently a fan. Both died too young. 

It is these sorts of connections that make the cemeteries of Paris so interesting. Near to Père Lachaise’s main entrance, there is a monument memorializing two generals who were assassinated on March 18, 1871 at the start of short-lived, socialist government known as the Paris Commune. They were executed in Montmartre after refusing to recognize the new government. If you walk some distance toward the cemetery’s back walls, you will find a memorial to the members of the Commune who took refuge in the cemetery roughly two months after the Commune began. Events had turned against them. They were executed the morning after seeking refuge. Their bodies were relegated to unmarked graves, which was a dignified burial.

 Like a small city, a cemetery’s population expands.  Its architecture changes.  Centuries-old structures crumble, often left in disrepair.  Bronze statues are no longer the style de rigueur.  Modernists, like Mies van der Rohe, Henry Moore, and Brâncuși, have had their influence, resulting in minimalist and abstract tombs and mausoleums.  While the inscriptions on the structures dating from the 19th Century are in French, it is not unusual to see Chinese, Arabic or Hebrew script now, particularly because the French burial law is clear: While individual graves can contain markings indicating religious affiliations, the cemetery cannot designate areas limited to individual religious sects.   

 There is no escaping globalism, not even in Père Lachaise, which opened in 1804. Its name memorializes François de la Chaise, a Jesuit priest who heard Louis XIV’s confessions and granted the man known as the Sun King absolution from his sins. 

[Click on an Image to Enlarge It]

Pick Something Up on the Way to the Cemetery (Montparnasse Cemetery)

The Crematorium Where the Dead Are Incinerated (Père Lachaise)

Elements of the Body Escape the Cemetery During the Incineration Process, Traveling Above the Rooftops of Paris (Père Lachaise)

The Bits That Remain Are Encased in the Walls Surrounding the Crematorium (Père Lachaise)

The Then Freshly Interned Jeanne Moreau (Montmartre Cemetery)

“Where is Jim?,” They Ask as They Pass By (Père-Lachaise)

Rock and Roll Is the Connection (Père-Lachaise)

A 19th-Century Motif I (Père-Lachaise)

A 19th-Century Motif II (Père-Lachaise)

We Still Remember, But with Styles of Our Time (Père-Lachaise)

Reversing the Flow By Removing the Dead (Père-Lachaise)

Photographer’s Notes: Many of the photographs in this essay are from my December 2018 trip to Paris. Others are from early 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.

On Death

On Death