Friday, 17 April 2009
With the dead
I arrived early at the cemetery. I'd planned this in advance. I wanted to wander round alone.
I wasn't there to grieve but as a tourist. For years I'd planned to visit Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris and I'd finally arranged to do so. I was going to wander round with two younger friends but it was a sunny day and I'd heard there was lots to see. I got there an hour before them.
Pere Lachaise is a tourist attraction but it's still used for new burials and cremations. Families who bought their plots in perpetuity, as attested by numbers on the monuments, continue to use them and my first walk took me past families tending graves and watering flowers. (There are taps provided where visitors can fill jugs.)
I had expected to experience gloom in Pere Lachaise - a sense of being surrounded by the dead. Homer calls them "the silent majority" but they didn't crowd in on me. The monuments, often like small houses with doors that could open or stand sternly locked, got in the way of the people they housed. The tomb of Heloise and Abelard - the first tourist attraction of Pere Lachaise, reuniting the lovers on a stone bed beneath a Gothic canopy - shows them so monumentally calm that it's hard to associate the peaceful figures with the messiness of their lives and emotions. I was pleased to see the tomb surrounded by scaffolding; that and the clustering tourists was the nearest I reached to an evocation of mediaeval Paris. It was a slight disappointment. I read Helen Waddell's novel about Abelard in my teens and moved on through her translations to enjoy mediaeval Latin poems - my classics teacher was distressed at my vulgar enjoyment of Latin poetry that rhymed.
I'd been told Pere Lachaise was big but hadn't realised quite how large it was. I thought I knew about large cemeteries having wandered through Highgate a few times as a child - my aunt lived nearby. I was glad I'd purchased a map showing the locations of the famous dead for 2 euros. This showed me that Jim Morrison was relatively near Heloise and Abelard so I walked in his direction, determined to get photos for my son, who sometimes wears a Doors T-shirt. It was easy enough to find the grave as sightseers - all younger than me - were crowded around, gazing at the simple polished inscription, the photos and bouquets. As I watched, one young man vaulted over the rail to get close to the grave. All at once, a uniformed French caretaker, who had been watching the scene, moved in to order him away. I realised that there were at least three guards on this grave - the only ones I saw anywhere in the cemetery before chucking-out time.
I waited my turn and got close enough to take my photos. Then I headed away in search of Chopin, whose tomb with numerous floral tributes, was next to the neglected splendours of Cherubini. Close to them both was a ginger cat, purring as he slept on a jacket. There were flowers around him too as well as bowls of water and cat biscuits. But I had little time to talk to the sleeping cat - it was time to walk back to the entrance to meet my friends.