One would associate Paris with café noir, walks along the Seine, musée, and romance. It is certainly all of these, but it has also been home to some of the greatest artistes in every sphere. Some day that celebrated life ends, and that’s where this story begins. In the verdant avenues of the Père Lachaise Cemetery. As the Parisian rain falls on these wonderful trees, I wonder what they dream of, in their crypts.
Balzac strolled here once, and ended up being buried in one corner of the vast park he loved. Proust still gets a taste of petites madeleines, jammy ones at that, from fans aching to recreate the ‘moment’. Chopin asked for his heart to be sent to his beloved Warsaw, while the rest of him lies here. No wonder Eliot declaimed
So intimate, this Chopin, that I think his soul
Should be resurrected only among friends
Some two or three, who will not touch the bloom
That is rubbed and questioned in the concert room
Given the republican history of the city, the workers of Paris also find a place here. 147 communards, who were shot in the Paris Commune repression of 1871, are remembered through a commemorative wall, the Mur des Fédérés. It’s a reminder of the world outside and its brutal games, so removed from this green isle of peace.
One thinks here of Oscar Wilde’s words to a dear sister gone at nine.
Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow
Speak gently, she can hear
the daisies grow
I vex my heart alone
She is at rest
You’d think some of that same peace would be due to him; after his troubles at the hands of a homophobic nation, and dying a pauper, but alas, even his grave here was not spared. The epitaph to his turbulent life, fittingly, is his own verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
Besides the old vandalism to Epstein’s creation, the new challenge is to prevent further desecration by lipsticked followers, so now the memorial has a glass surround to stop people from getting too close for the inhabitant’s comfort.
Meanwhile, Jim Morrison continues to be mobbed in fan graffiti. It is the most popular site in the whole place, and must take an army of cleaners to present a bare canvas each week.
A little further away, Édith Piaf still holds converse with lovers one or all four. Their graves cluster around hers, while newer admirers, a tad more alive, bring flowers to bedeck her grave with.
And everywhere, in each lane, are the graves of ordinary Parisians, usually placed en famille. There are innumerable vaults, of all sizes and shapes, and they look ready for the latest descendant to join them and bring a flavour of what goes for bon vivant in these degenerate times.
One wonders what Père Lachaise looks like on All Souls Day, when it’s the custom to take flowers to honour your dear ones and basically have a happy day celebrating the whole notion of death.
I rather like that thought.
Lina Krishnan is an abstract artist, poet and photographer in Pondicherry. She has a chapbook of nature verse, Small Places, Open Spaces, with Australian poet Valli Poole.