With grey skies, a mild drizzle and a very slight nip in the air, it was perfect weather to visit a cemetery. And I was headed to Père-Lachaise in Paris’s 20th arrondissement, the largest cemetery inside the city’s precincts. The 110-acre grounds are the final resting place for thousands of Parisians, some of them extremely famous.
There are “tombstone tourists” or taphophiles who visit cemeteries to look at epitaphs and photograph elaborate sculptures. I wasn’t one of them and neither were the handful of people who got off at Père-Lachaise Metro Station that Sunday morning. Following the signs, we all emerged into the dull morning, ready for some unusual sightseeing.
Outside, at the newspaper kiosk, a bored man talking on his phone handed me a folded brochure even before I had finished saying, “une carte s’il vous plait (one card please)”. It costs just two euros, but is an invaluable guide if a visitor does not want to go round and round in circles trying to identify a grave, which could be hidden in some distant, obscure section of the sprawling estate.
Though the place is serene and conducive to sauntering, looking at some remarkable graves with elaborate designs, I was in a hurry to finish the one task that I had on my mind from the moment I landed in Paris. All the other dignitaries could wait—I had to first go and pay my respects to James Douglas Morrison. Yes, the Jim Morrison, the bad boy lead vocalist of The Doors is buried in Division 6 of Père-Lachaise.
Although Morrison’s grave is indeed there—a simple, unostentatious affair inscribed with his full name and dates of birth and death—it’s hardly his “resting” place. Devotees like me, who make the pilgrimage from across the world to look at, photograph, and even kiss the humble gravestone, do not allow the Lizard King his peace. Roses, drawings, graffiti, even his framed photographs, as well as some broken needles, indicate the love and respect the star, who died in Paris in 1971, continues to inspire in his fans.
Cemetery authorities have now enclosed the tomb within barricades, no doubt under instruction from Morrison’s family members. This ensures that visitors remain at a respectful distance, but it hardly deters the truly enthusiastic and fanatic. The barricades too are full of locks, now a popular form of expressing love. On the day I went, senior citizens, young dudes, and tattooed women were my fellow gawkers, posing at convoluted angles to get a proper selfie. Despite the significant presence of Morrison’s fans, there is complete silence around. You cannot help feeling touched by a sense of solemnity, a far cry from the raucous life of the rockstar.
After paying my respects at his shrine, I set out to see the graves of other well-known residents. There is a wide choice; the map has nearly 250 names that include composer Frédéric Chopin, glass designer René Lalique, post-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat, and jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli. I focused on finding the personalities on my own small list.
The first one was the famous chanteuse Édith Piaf, who charmed Paris in the 1930s and ’40s. With “La Vie En Rose” ringing in my ears, I started walking towards Division 97, and even though the map showed a fairly straight path, I lost my way. Since the cemetery is on an incline, it can be a fairly tiring walk. By now the sun was out, so it was hot too.
I gave up the search for Édith Piaf and instead headed to Division 94 close by, to trace the grave of Gertrude Stein. The American modernist writer of the early 20th century lived in Paris and ran the city’s most famous cultural salon on Saturday evenings, where authors like Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce would routinely drop by. Stein was a Jew, but the cemetery has no religious barriers; only the condition that the person should have lived and died in Paris. True to her own literary style, the grave is sparse and almost austere: Her tombstone is a block of granite with her name chiselled on it in golden letters. Her close friend and partner Alice B. Toklas is buried with her.
After this sombre homage, all that was left for me was to seek out the tomb of the most famous wit of his time, Oscar Wilde. Would it reflect his flamboyant personality? Or would it also be modest, given that Wilde had such powerful detractors and served jail time, especially towards the end of his life?
I was in for a surprise. It is heartening to see that Wilde is commemorated with a marvellous monument made by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, who incorporated Egyptian and other influences into creating a winged creature, said to symbolise a messenger moving forward. It has been studied for hints of strong sexuality—the figure’s nakedness was a source of much controversy in 1914 when it was completed. The statue is covered in puckered lipstick marks. Marauders, vandals, and perhaps, admirers, have taken away chips of the stone as souvenirs, although authorities have now installed a glass barrier around it.
I had heard that J.R.D. Tata too was buried at the cemetery but no map indicated the spot. However, I was satisfied with the visit to Oscar Wilde’s tomb, which capped a perfectly fruitful but tiring day. It also put me in the mood for a beer at a typical Parisian café nearby, where I wound up the day contemplating the mysteries of life, death, and everlasting fame.
Appeared in the February 2015 issue as “Grave Encounters”.