I didn’t kiss Oscar Wilde. He’d already been kissed enough. We found him in Paris’s Pere Lachaise cemetery, lying under a large block of sandstone, enigmatically carved by Jacob Epstein. His grave was covered with lipstick and messages scrawled with felt pens; ‘Je t’aime’, ‘Merci pour tous’ and ‘L’importanza d’essere Oscar!’
Maybe Wilde would have been flattered by the attention, but one contribution, ‘Dennis and Flavia was here from Brazil’, suggested that not all his visitors were true theatre lovers. Kissing his stone must be listed in some tourist guide as one of ‘Ten Things You Must Do in Paris’.
When it first opened in 1804, Parisians thought Pere Lachaise was too far out of town for grieving families to visit. Even after a publicity campaign, involving moving Moliere and La Fontaine out there to pull in new customers, it continued to struggle for business. But when Balzac laid characters from his novels to rest in Pere Lachaise, tourists went looking for the graves of fictional heroes, and soon real people wanted to RIP there too. Now it’s home to Balzac himself, to Proust, Piaf, Seurat, Rossini, Chopin, Bizet, Delacroix, Gertrude Stein, Sarah Bernhardt, Charlie Chaplin and Jim Morrison. Their neighbour is the very quiet Marcel Marceau.
Each year Pere Lachaise attracts many thousands of visitors, maps in hand, sniffing around its 70,000 graves, looking for their favourite dead people. The cemetery is popular, but at 44 hectares it’s the biggest park in Paris, so it’s anything but crowded. The dead may be a little cramped, but there’s plenty of room for those of us still living to wander along the cobblestone paths, or to sit under the giant chestnut trees and reflect on what this life and death business is all about.
We had to share our James Douglas Morrison moment with a couple of other Doors fans, though there was no queue for tickets. We’d read that he was the celebrity most visitors come to see, but we found him tucked away behind a little fence, his grave adorned with last week’s drooping roses and a bunch of plastic flowers.
Edith Piaf is also a little off the path, opposite Modigliani. She has a marble slab, a crucifix and an urn marked simply ‘EP’. Poignantly, Piaf shares her grave with her two-year-old son, Marcel Dupont. And more plastic flowers.
There were bunches of them on the Auschwitz monument too, along with a hand-written note, in French, which read, ‘What horror! It is a disgrace to see these faded, artificial flowers as a memorial to these people. One hopes the caretakers clean them up soon!’
We could only agree. If you’re seriously devoted to the departed, you should go to some trouble, as a man was doing for Chopin, carefully arranging cut flowers in vases. Someone had planted and tended a lovely bed of purple irises on Charlie Chaplin’s family tomb. Leaving plastic flowers seems to say, ‘We know we should think of you more often, but we have busy lives. So here’s something to keep you going while we’re off enjoying ourselves.’
Other graves are falling into disrepair, the owners having moved on, leaving no forwarding address. On some mossy tombstones, authorities had posted bossy equivalents of abandoned vehicle notices, to the effect that (as far as our inadequate French could decipher) – ‘This grave appears untended. It will be demolished unless someone comes to claim it.’
When we’d found everyone we’d heard of in Pere Lachaise, we moved on to the Montmartre Cemetery. The entrance is overshadowed by an ugly iron bridge, but inside is an oasis in a particularly crowded part of Paris. Less beautiful than Pere Lachaise it may be, but the brochure was gratuit, which immediately made us well disposed towards it.
Here lie Stendhal, Delibes and Offenbach, as well as Mme Weber, inventor of the can-can, and Alphonsine ‘La Dame Aux Camelias’ Plessis. Francois Truffaut’s grave was a triumph of art direction; simple marble adorned with a tiny jar of fresh red and orange roses.
Tombs can often be pretentious or just plain kitsch. Inscriptions try to say too much and end up being pompous or trite. Tomb designers are seldom artists of the same calibre as the famous departed. There are exceptions; there’s a lovely statue of a little girl on Gustave Guillaumet’s grave and Nijinsky’s final resting place bears a delicate bronze of the dancer in character and thoughtful pose.
We met an English couple, confused by a concrete box with a black metal door labelled Famille de Gas. ‘We thought it was a gas meter,’ they said. We didn’t know Degas was a pen name either. Or should that be a ‘nom de pastel’?
Across the Seine, serious honouring of dead heroes happens in the Pantheon. Suspended under the dome, Foucault’s pendulum swings inexorably back and forth, illustrating the rotation of the earth. In the crypt below, the “Grand Hommes” of the French Republic are buried. Victor Hugo is there, Voltaire and the Curies too, and Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola were moved there from Montmartre. Most moving we found the memorial to the resistance leader Jean Moulin, killed by the Nazis.
Finally, in the Hotel des Invalides is the grandest tomb of them all. For 8 euros, including the audio guide, visitors can wander around the massive marble coffin containing whatever is left of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Celebrity grave-spotting was a diverting way to pass a couple of days in Paris, yet compared to the contributions many of these people made in their lifetimes, they don’t have a lot to add in death. We spared a thought for them as we stood by their resting places, but we’ve really been closer to them when listening to La Vie en Rose or Carmen or reading Pere Goriot or The Happy Prince. Seurat’s paintings are considerably more beautiful than his tomb.
Sitting and thinking under a spreading chestnut tree, it all fell into place for me. Life is short and you’re a long time dead. An impressive grave can squeeze a few more drops out of your celebrity, but if you hope to achieve anything in this world, it’s best to do it while you’re still alive.