My Travel Book - Paris and Graveyards - An Introduction to Le Père Lachaise
I know this must sound weird but I love Paris graveyards... There are three of them: Montmartre, Montparnasse and Le Père Lachaise. I should have started with Le Père Lachaise because it was the first one to be created at the very beginning of the XIXth century, in 1804.
Actually, at that time, they were outside Paris. Napoléon signed a decree banning all graveyards from Paris because they were becoming very unsafe and mostly overcrowded.
So they destroyed the existing graveyards, recovered the bones (from about 6 million bodies) and stored them in underground tunnels left from abandoned stone quarries which became gigantic ossuaries. (Underground Paris looks like a gigantic piece of Swiss cheese...) The one you can visit is huge and is called the Catatombs. I’ve never been there which shows that I am not a necrophiliac. Feeling better?
But my life has been filled with graveyards.
When I was a teenager, spending a lot of time in Arfons, our tiny family village above Carcassonne, there wasn’t much to do, except spending the day on the lake shores, after a long trek up and down through the forest. Our parents (except for one couple) didn’t really enjoy having a lot of teenagers around, hanging in the backyard... But we were very resourceful and one of our best ever hanging around place was the village graveyard.
The local café on the village square closed very early at night, probably because we almost never bought drinks but kept using the chairs and were laughing too much and too loud.
The graveyard was nice and very old. Some of us lived very close to it. And all of us had family members buried there. The big iron gates were never closed...
And so we’d go there, to the most secluded place... we’d sit around and build the world anew... listening to the chimes of the steeple clock. It was a very nice and friendly place.
(I’m still wondering why our grand-parents and/or parents never wondered where we were. I know Arfons was a very safe place then. I guess their problem was to have us back home at ‘curfew’ time which receded from year to year!)
This is where I saw my first will-o’-the-wisp dancing over the graves during warm summer nights. Old people were scared of them and would talk about them in hushed whispers but we loved them. To us, it truly was a poetic experience.
One day, while hiking through the forest (one of the biggest in France at the time), we discovered bones sticking out of the ground! We knew that until 1789, there had been monks living there ever since the Middle Ages. There were a few vestiges of walls, here and there... mostly ‘swallowed’ by the lush vegetation.
We did not report our discovery to our parents because we had found a skull (yes, a human skull) that was to become our friendly companion for a few years. But this is another story. We finally grew up and reported our findings... (We were bright enough at the time to leave a very visible mark on the site and since we knew the forest very well, it wasn’t hard to get back there.) There was a lot of excitement over it, I remember!
Many years later, I moved close to Paris with husband and son, to Rueil-Malmaison (home to the Empress Josephine who had been Napoléon’s first wife). We settled in a house very close to the city ‘new’ graveyard. We walked by it everyday, when JC and I went shopping to the small mall down the street.
This graveyard used to fascinate my boy (7 at the time). He had to go inside almost every day. He loved to check the nearest/newest graves, always covered with flowers and the ‘We love you, mother dear’ or ‘We’ll never forget you’ slabs French people love to put over the marble family vault.
I know this is where he mastered arithmetic because he had to know how old the person was whenever a new grave appeared. He also was totally amazed by the unrelenting growth of the graveyard.
‘The dead are growing, see, mommy, the dead are growing’, he’d tell me!
It used to spook me at the time. But now, when I think about it, I wonder if the gravediggers wouldn’t like to change their name.
‘What do you do in life?’
‘Oh, well, I’m growing dead people.’
Which would also apply to tobacconists, bartenders, bad drivers and some oncologists... Too many people.
I think I’ll stick to 'gravediggers'.
Anyway, I’m very glad I never told my boy:
‘Yes, dear, the dead are growing and the universe is expanding.’
I would have felt so guilty whenever he was really unhappy during his astrophysics PhD student days. This memory would have depressed him very much, I think.
Of course, I was very relieved when we moved to our new house, a long way from the graveyard, well, not that far away but not that close either. I guess I was getting too old to watch the dead growing.
Swee'Pea soon forgot all about his then weekly/monthly visits to the ‘growing dead’. Well, just about time. He was 11. He soon developped other interests. He was growing up.
When we went to live in Belgium, Swee'Pea remained in Paris to study. We found him a nice apartment, very close to the school where he was studying, hoping to become an engineer after 3 years of Classes préparatoires. He never became an engineer... but he kept his apartment.
This apartment is facing a huge high-school partly built in the early XIXth century... Guess what was there before? Yes... one of those Parisian graveyards that were destroyed and whose ‘inhabitants’ are now resting underground, very close to the Paris Observatory where Swee'Pea spent quite a few years!
Ok, I guess I should stick to telling stories with pretty pictures...
But wait till I take you along to Le Père Lachaise! It is such a beautiful and peaceful place where the dead are not growing anymore, I promise. You are going to love this place.
*Good Night, and Good Luck*