Monday, October 29, 2012

City of the Dead: Pere Lachaise

Jules Massenet / Méditation from Thaïs by Yo-Yo Ma on Grooveshark

What's so great about visiting a cemetery...right?  Enter Pere Lachaise (named about Louis XIV's confessor, Pere Francois de la Chaise), the most visited cemetery in the world.  I went there almost as an afterthought, primarily because it was the perfect distance from my place in the 16th arrondissement to go on a long walk (it's in the exact opposite periphery of Paris in the 20th arrondissement).  I was pleasantly surprised to find myself immensely moved and astounded by the place.  It's not just a final resting place of the dead (2-3 million to be exact, including the stored remains contained in the ossuary), but the 100-acre necropolis also has a church, a huge park, a crematorium, an ossuary, numerous memorials to soldiers and civilian victims, several more memorials to the Jews who were exterminated during the Holocaust and trees everywhere (over 5,000 trees).  The mausoleums and tombs are fascinating, ranging from the mundane to gothic chapels to neo-classic sculptures.  It is a veritable city replete with street signs and "houses" reflecting diverse socio-economic strata and philosophies of design.  

A lot of people go to visit the grave of Jim Morrison, but look who else is buried there, a roster of immortal composers, performers, singers, philosophers, military heroes, many of whom had a nationality other than French:  Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Bizet, Maria Callas, Cherubini, CHOPIN, Colette, Comte, Cortot, Delacroix, Isadora Duncan, Hedayat, Heloise, Ingres, Kruetzer (of the famed Kruetzer Sonata), Lalique, Marcel Marceau, Modigliani, Moliere, Adelina Patti, Edith Piaf, Pissaro, Poulenc, Proust, Seurat, Gertrude Stein, Oscar entire history of Western civilization is accounted for here.  

As with any citadel, there is a large brick wall that encloses the premises.  The main entrance is fittingly solemn and unassuming.   
Entrance to the city of the dead!

Long, windy, tree-lined rows of thousands of unique tombs.  

The tombs range from the beloved memorials of centuries ago... fairly modern chapels. 

Street after endless street
Each one is different...precious lives

At first I was a little creeped out.  I was debating whether it would be entirely too macabre to visit a cemetery just for the sake of admiring it.  

But ambling along these roads, I suddenly felt at peace.  The people who are buried here and the loved ones who buried them, want to be remembered.  For centuries, people who were loved, admired and sorely missed were placed in these graves and tombs/mausoleums placed over them in remembrance of their existence.  Why not be here to acknowledge their presence on this earth and give thanks for all they did to inform the reality of our current existence.  


Memorial to the Jews massacred during the Second World War:

I was enormously surprised and thrilled to discover that one of my most favorite composers of all time, Chopin, was also buried here...surprising as he is a Polish national treasure.  We found his grave on the map and made our way to that section.  We actually couldn't miss it because Chopin's grave is eternally decorated with fresh flowers by fans from around the world and fiercely protected by a self-appointed keeper.  I tried to place flowers on his grave but the guy snatched them from me and placed them where he deemed most aesthetically pleasing next to the slew of other flowers that he had carefully arranged.  

As we walked through the cobble-stoned paths amongst the trees and tombs that had been there for hundreds of years now, it felt incredibly romantic, and aside from the gorgeous trees, I couldn't quite place why...right?  How could one feel amorous amongst the dead?  

I realized I felt that way because I heard the message from these fascinating people who had once lived, loved, laughed, prospered, had felt disappointment, elation, rage, happiness.  And that message is for the living!  Make the most of it while you can!  There is no time to wait. Our time on this earth is so short, while you are here, make the best of what comes your way, grab & create opportunities, love intensely while you can, take care of yourself and others, every single day of your life, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy living and what life has to offer, and be happy.  

I turned and kissed my surprised friend squarely on the lips and gave him a big hug.  I was definitely feeling squishy.  And we happily paid our respects to the beautiful Pere Lachaise, gave our thoughts and prayers to those who had lived before us, and proceeded to have the biggest, butter-drenched 7-course meal at one of the best restaurants in town followed by live music and dancing.  

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