It was a rainy and grey autumn morning when we stepped on the cobbled path of the Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise, the most renowned cemetery in Paris and perhaps also around the world. As we whipped out our umbrellas and traced the 48-hectare area, ebony-feathered crows perched on top of the majestic gravestones and a slice of mist created a translucent veil between us, the living, and the dead. It felt like we have just entered the realm of Nobody Owens, of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and that anytime a ghost might float and greet us from one of the tombs.
The surreal atmosphere and the magnificent sights were exciting at first, but as we walked further up the hilly trail the thrill slowly evaporated. The statues of weeping women and the chill brought by the breeze quickly turned the mood somber, for I had just realized that this is a place of mourning.
I even felt subdued when we arrived at Jim Morrison’s grave, supposedly the magnet of the cemetery and was fenced to ward off frenzied fans who often felt the urge to throw themselves to the headstone and wail their hearts out. Suddenly I felt uncomfortable for wearing a bright red trench coat; its cheerful tone seemed to violate the solemn atmosphere.
Our path then led us to what I later learned as Pere Lachaise’s most notable quirk, Victor Noir’s resting place after being killed in a combat. Noir was journalist, but it isn’t because of his living days he became famous. His tomb is noted for paying very close attention to the details of his corpse, including (or should I say especially?) his partly aroused state. Parisian women have taken the habit of rubbing his genitalia for fertility and it must have worked to a certain degree, since the said member is now discolored from all the rubbing!
Noir’s eccentricity brought a smile to my face, which bloomed even wider as we stumbled across Oscar Wilde’s crypt. It was not the grandest of tombs, in fact I think the modern angel relief looked strange and out of place in the gothic surroundings, but it was definitely the most loved. All four sides were sprinkled with lipstick kisses and heartfelt scribbles of joy and gratitude for Wilde’s work. I contemplated for a while whether or not to grace Wilde’s final resting place with my lips, but then decided against it because a) I don’t even own a lipstick and b) I was afraid of getting cooties.
While I was busy with the inner battle of to kiss or not to kiss, I noticed that other visitors also had their own inner conversations. Unlike the shutter aficionados at Jim Morrison’s, Wilde’s companions were calmer and seemed to come with a purpose. Most of them, I observed, were gay and lesbian couples that held hands as they laid flowers or silently communicating with the departed author, who was himself a passionate same-sex lover.
That was when another insight struck me. Pere Lachaise, and other cemeteries, is not only about mourning loved ones. It is also about a celebration of lives, lives of people who continue to touch others’ even long after their passing. With this thought, I walked away with a spring in my steps, for my red dash finally became appropriate.
Den Haag, November 2009