Nobody does death quite like the French.

On Friday, I found myself in Place de la Nation fulfilling a frustrating administrative task. So, to console myself, I decided to walk home via the Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Perhaps this sounds odd, that I intended to improve my mood by walking amongst the dead. Still, those who are familiar with off-the-beaten-path-Paris will know that many of the city’s greatest sights involve death – or at least, dead people.

If it’s not Père-Lachaise Cemetery, it’s Montparnasse Cemetery or Montmartre Cemetery. Maybe even a visit to les grands hommes who rest in the Panthéon. Then there’s the catacombs, for the brave visitors who dare to cross the threshold which warns: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort!” (“Stop! Here is the empire of Death!”). Here, you’ll find winding paths, an underground city complete with road names, each street lined with the skeletal remains of over six million people.

Creepy stuff, sure. But that day, I felt drawn to Père-Lachaise. Entering the grounds, I felt a serene sense of calm descend over me. The roaring din and honks of Parisian traffic faded, and I was surrounded by cool stone and leafless trees. I paid visits to all the famous locals. I was approached by an excited man with long, unbrushed hair, who told me in a strange Franglish who I should visit, and instructed me to take a photo of his map with my appareil photo.

Père-Lachaise map

I spent two hours or so amongst the graves, contemplating to my heart’s content. After some time, I noticed that the roads radiating from the crematorium were lined with cars. As I saw the crowds, I realised: there was a funeral today. I walked hurriedly in the opposite direction, only to see a girl about my age, standing in front of a grave I probably would have walked past, clutching flowers and murmuring softly, her glistening eyes reflecting the January sunlight. I stopped, not wishing to impose myself on her moment of grief, and turned to a grave close by, examining its letters in detail, but not really reading them. Suddenly, the place had transformed – it was no longer an opportunity to be closer to Oscar Wilde or Isadora Duncan or Frederic Chopin than I had ever been before, but a place of mourning. A place where dead people rest.

Then, I thought of respect. We tend to think of respect as solemnly and dutifully extolling the numerous virtues of the deceased, of lamenting their loss for a day of black clothing, and then not daring to mention their name for the rest of our years. Many argue that opening up cemeteries as tourist attractions is distasteful and disrespectful, but I believe it’s just another opportunity to show respect. Although Oscar Wilde’s tomb, one of the more ‘popular’ in Père-Lachaise, has had to be fenced in with glass panes to stop his adoring fans from causing damage, many people do come simply to ‘pay their respects’. In fact, the most disrespectful behaviour I witnessed came from this cat, who many might argue could not have known better.

grave cat

I suspect he could have, but simply chose not to.

Since arriving in Paris in September, I’ve come to realise that British and French cultures towards death are very different. In Britain, we prefer to honour the dead solemnly, with statues and memorial services and hushed words. In France, it seems that they celebrate the dead. Their tombstones are not grey and simple, hidden away behind churches. They are marble, they are ornate, they are often gaudy (to my tastes). But they are respectful.

Denial is not a step on the path to respect. However, celebration, exhibition, and, yes, gaudy celebrations, are very good stepping stones along the way.


4 Responses to Pere-Lachaise

  1. Thank you for this lovely piece.

  2. Oh Père-Lachaise.. Have you gone to the Montparnasse cemetery? I’m very curious about that one.. I found Père-Lachaise a little disappointing, specially the Jim Morrison tombstone.

    • Hi Teresa! I have been to Montparnasse. I liked it (it has Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, after all!) but I love the landscape of Père-Lachaise – the way it’s set on the hill is absolutely lovely. I didn’t get round to Jim Morrison, but I loved the general atmosphere of Père-Lachaise.

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