Monday, 20 April 2009

Chucking out time at the cemetery

Any sense of the dead remained stubbornly absent as I headed back to the main entrance of Pere Lachaise to meet my friends. They're younger than me: Vicky's 30 and Katie was a day short of 27. The sun and the imminent birthday celebration made for a cheerful mood as we strolled, climbed and clambered among the graves.

We consulted the plan together and tried to work out a route, negotiating between our favourite dead people.
We began by retreading the tourist trail to Jim Morrison, with a short detour to Heloise and Abelard. I was glad to glimpse Francis Poulenc on the way. Then we headed up towards Edith Piaf. I suppose the black marble, adorned with crucifix, bore some relationship to her life but I wanted something as rough and moving as her songs.

While our route was determined by the locations of some of Pere Lachaise's famous inhabitants, we were soon distracted by the delights of unexpected monuments. None of us knew who Andre Gill was but we were cheered by his bust with bright red chrysanthemum button-hole - not to mention a starfish laid before it. Katie, facing her advancing age with determination, decided to contemplate the possibilities of her own tomb, and decided that she too would have a fresh button-hole every day and that the duty of replacing the flower would be linked to a scholarship for poor postgraduates.

As we progressed, Katie's tomb designs grew more extravagant. She liked the bats carved into a metal door, art nouveau mosaics, the numerous mourning figures (almost always female). She wondered how to commemorate her books, her study and her shoes. Seeing a gigantic obelisk which towered over a family tomb vast enough to accommodate a living family on two storeys, she briefly hesitated over which to choose, then announced that she wanted both. "I won't have a tomb - I'll have a theme park," she declared. This added to our enthusiastic search for extravagant memorials.

Then Vicky admitted, when she was a child having dramatic tantrums, her parents had compared her to Sarah Bernhardt. Katie and I decided that we must find Sarah Bernhardt's tomb and photograph Vicky (in suitably dramatic pose) beside it. Unfortunately the "divine Sarah" was interred some way back from the path and her tomb was hard to photograph. Just as we'd readied our cameras and persuaded Vicky to adopt a suitable pose, a group arrived with their tour guide to trudge round the tomb. Vicky immediately abandoned her pose and the tour group prevented us from taking photos.

There was little gloom at Pere Lachaise. Jacob Epstein's huge, angular angel over Oscar Wilde's grave was a place of particular jollity and celebration. Oscar's last three years were spent as a bankrupt in Paris. I wondered what he would have made of the lipstick kisses on his tomb or the beaming male couple who posed hand-in-hand in front of it for a photo.

But at the top of the cemetery, as we neared the wall where the last Communards were shot, I stopped taking photos. This the part of the cemetery which reminds strollers of the past inhumanities. At first I hastened to see the spectacular sculptures but then I realised they commemorated the people who had been denounced, rounded up and deported to concentration and extermination camps. Underneath the romance of "abroad" there lies, almost always, the barbarism of the past which calls to mind the barbarism of today. I was shaken but wanted to recapture the holiday mood.

As we walked in the courtyard of the vast, domed crematorium, I tried to sweep aside thoughts of other crematorium chimneys and focus on the rows of little boxes in which ashes were stored. We found Stephane Grappelli and Georges Perec - but it was hard to see any relation between their brilliance and the simple inscriptions. By then it was past 5, and the cemetery was due to close at 6. We decided to make some last searches.

We saw Melies and then set out in search of Brunhoff, inspired by Katie's love of the Babar books. But the tomb, belonging to the Brunhoff family, was a disappointment. There were absolutely no elephants. We made our way back to the cemetery's main entrance.

It was 10 to 6 and chucking out time at the cemetery. An attendant sped past us on a motorbike, shouting at everyone to get out. The gardiens at the gates vigorously urged everyone to leave. We took their advice and headed out in search of a bar.


katie said...

To be honest, I don't think we had really persuaded Vicky to do anything at all. It would have been good though.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful photo of the monument for Andre Gill!