Père-Lachaise did get me thinking about death, yes, but it also got me thinking about the vicissitudes of celebrity. Père-Lachaise’s most famous resident, at least for Americans and those coming of age in the ‘60s, is perhaps Jim Morrison. He died a few months after moving to Paris, quite a coup for the city, who claimed his body for their own. When I visited, Morrison’s gravesite was the busiest spot in the cemetery, encircled by groups of vaguely punkish young men speaking German, Russian, and British English. The cemetery authorities have blocked off Morrison’s grave with metal fencing, and apparently have stationed a guard there as well, although when I came by, he seemed to be taking a cigarette break.
Not too far from Jim Morrison is Oscar Wilde, whose incredible tombstone also attracted a fair bit of attention.
The photo really doesn’t do it justice, but I couldn’t get a better angle, what with the two middle-aged men (I assume a couple from their comportment) making a careful grave rubbing of Wilde’s name, plus the girl mugging for her boyfriend’s camera, adding a lipsticked kiss to the stone as she muttered, “This is the most unsanitary thing I’ve ever done.” The Paris authorities are clearly upset about the desecration, but I’m not sure Wilde would have minded.
Marcel Proust’s grave, in contrast, is a somber black granite affair, polished to a high sheen and decorated with a few tasteful arrangements of fresh flowers. The French clearly look after their own. Gertrude Stein, an honorary Parisienne, also has a lovely gravesite, with a collection of gray granite pebbles in front of her simple stone. What’s striking about her tombstone is only apparent if you circle around the rear, something I trust few people do. Around back, a Miss Alice B Toklas has her name and dates unceremoniously carved into the other side of Stein’s stone. Not the most noble end, really, for someone who shared her life and editorial energies with the famous author.
The most impressive grave, however, is a memorial to those who died in the Holocaust. The tombstone is a sculpture that carves an appropriately horrifying silhouette against the sky, reminding us of the lost dead, interred somewhere far from their families and hometowns, who nonetheless are and must be remembered.
Of course, to be buried in Père-Lachaise, you either have to have a lot of money, or be very famous. But then there are those of us just passing through, who have no need of either.