Cemeteries have as much to do with death as biography does. In most biographies, the first or last chapter addresses the circumstances surrounding the subject’s demise, but the author’s overall objective is to explore the subject’s life: how events shaped it and how the subject shaped the world.
Cemeteries function much like biographies, or in some cases like autobiographies, as do university and other charitable endowments. Both the decedent and the grantor hope for immortality through these manifestations of self. By examining the choices made by the person or his successors, we can learn something about the decedent or grantor and what was important to them while alive. It should come as no surprise that in the United States, cemeteries and charitable endowments are often subject to the same or similar regulatory regimes. Both serve the same purpose: Keeping someone’s identity alive.
Those who choose cremation often do so because they don’t want their remains to occupy space that they believe could be put to better use by the living. Yet, many cemetery associations do provide wall space for urns filled with ashes and names. When someone who is wealthy enough to erect a mausoleum chooses cremation, he or she has probably endowed a university chair, financed an art museum bearing his name, or set restricted fun’s aside for a charity, with the fund carrying his or his family’s name. People want to be remembered.
I fulfill their wishes as I photograph their tombs and chapels. My choices sometimes are based on who is beneath the tomb, but more often than not, it is based on structural detail and ambience. When I am unfamiliar with the occupant, I always take a photograph of the name so I can Google the person as I develop the images of his or her resting spot. I am often surprised by what I learn.
For example, Tignous, who was a cartoonist with Charlie Hebdo, was among those who were assisted in 2015 during a terrorist attack at the newspaper’s Paris offices. In his case, I assume his survivors are ones.
While walking in Père Lachaise this past December, I noticed the light on three identical tombs with Arabic script. The light, alone, warranted a photograph, but I was also curious about the reference to Kurdistan on the tombs. It turns out that the occupants of the three graves were Iranian-Kurdish leaders who opposed the Iranian government. They were assassinated while eating in a Greek restaurant in Berlin. Given the sudden and unexpected nature of their deaths, it is unlikely that they had chosen the burial site, but their survivors obviously wanted to make a statement about them and their cause.
It is also unlikely that Jim Morrison chose his final resting spot, although he is said to have visited the cemetery several weeks before his death so he may have expressed a preference. His last will and testament makes no reference to burial preferences. Having died in Paris, he was eligible for burial in a Paris cemetery. Literary figures Guillaume Appollinaire, Colette, Balzac, Molière, Marcel Proust, and Richard Wright are buried Père Lachaise, so one of Morrison’s survivors may have found chosen the spot in Division 6 of the cemetery.
Héloïse and Abelard, the legendary star-crossed lovers, died centuries before Père Lachaise was established. There next of kin were long gone when the decision was made to move their bodies to 1817 Père Lachaise. The reasons for the move were hardly noble. Someone had decided that their presence in Père Lachaise would add cachet to a cemetery that was having trouble selling plots.
In some cases, it is the deceased who makes the choice, or at least presumably so. When we see references to saints or biblical figures, we can reasonably presume that the references meant something to the deceased.
Surrealist painter Victor Brauner created the sculpture that sits atop the grave that holds his remains, as well as those of his wife, Jacqueline.
I don’t know whether Parisian pharmacist Jean-Louis Sacchet is dead, but a 2012 article in France Today reports that “[i]t took [Sacchet] four years to build his personal pyramid in Père Lachaise; he now spends his spare time decorating the crypt with frescoes and hieroglyphics” According to the article, he “is worried that his embalmer, who is his own age, will pre-decease him.”
From our perspective it often doesn’t matter whether the tomb is biographical or autobiographical. We should take the hint by noting the occupant’s contribution to humanity, regardless of whether it is big or small.